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during an 18-month stint in solitary confinement started him on a path from prison to UC Berkeley, where he was majoring in English literature while struggling with the aftereffects of extreme isolation. But not everything expressed in words—even when organized and written down—is counted as literature.
Those writings that are primarily informative—technical, scholarly, journalistic—would be excluded from the rank of literature by most, though not all, critics.
The nature of artistic merit is less easy to define than to recognize. On the contrary, a scientific exposition might be of great literary value and a pedestrian poem of none at all.
The purest (or, at least, the most intense) literary form is the Greeks thought of history as one of the seven arts, inspired by a goddess, the muse Clio.
This is particularly true of books of natural history, where the element of personal observation is of special importance.
An excellent example is Gilbert White’s Oratory, the art of persuasion, was long considered a great literary art.
To use the word when describing literature is itself misleading, for one may speak of “oral literature” or “the literature of preliterate peoples.” The art of literature is not reducible to the words on the page; they are there solely because of the craft of writing.
As an art, literature might be described as the organization of words to give pleasure.
But already it is necessary to qualify these statements.Most of it is fugitive, but here and there—in high-level journalism, in television, in the cinema, in commercial fiction, in westerns and detective stories, and in plain, expository prose—some writing, almost by accident, achieves an aesthetic satisfaction, a depth and relevance that entitle it to stand with other examples of the art of literature.If the early Egyptians or Sumerians had critical theories about the writing of literature, these have not survived.Some personal documents (letters) rank among the world’s greatest literature.Some examples of this biographical literature were written with posterity in mind, others with no thought of their being read by anyone but the writer.
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The oratory of the American Indian, for instance, is famous, while in Classical Greece, Polymnia was the muse sacred to poetry and oratory.