What Is the Definition of Literature?


The exact definition of literature varies from one reader or critic to the next, but most agree that it is any writing with some degree of merit and language that serves as a gateway to the literary world. The word "literature" comes from the Latin word "literatura," which means "writing formed with letters." Whether someone writes fiction or nonfiction, or prose or poetry, it is possible to write literature. In modern times, a series of genres has arisen to take on the question of defining the field of study.

Literature is one of the oldest human inventions still in use. Ancient Sumeria and Egypt produced literature as early as 4000 B.C., both in the form of lyricism and written texts. However, it has an origin that is even older, and some of the earliest written works likely come from an oral tradition, making them far older.

The definition for "literature" has changed over time. In Western Europe, before the 1700s, literature referred to all writing and all books, but the Romantic period brought a more limited definition, applying it to the "imaginative nature" of literature. Contemporary conversations about a definition of literature are moving toward the older, more inclusive meaning.