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The Classic of Rites (ChinesepinyinLǐjì), an ancient Chinese text. Certain definitions of literature have taken it to include all written work.

Literature, in its broadest sense, is any written work; etymologically the term derives from Latin literatura/litteratura "writing formed with letters", although some definitions include spoken or sung texts. More restrictively, it is writing that possesses literary merit, and language that foregrounds literariness, as opposed to ordinary language. Literature can be classified according to whether it is fiction or non-fiction, and whether it is poetry or prose; it can be further distinguished according to major forms such as the novelshort story or drama; and works are often categorised according to historical periods, or according to their adherence to certain aesthetic features or expectations (genre).

Taken to mean only written works, literature was first produced by some of the world's earliest civilizations—those of Ancient Egypt and Sumeria—as early as the 4th millennium BC; taken to include spoken or sung texts, it originated even earlier, and some of the first written works may have been based on an already-existing oral tradition. As urban cultures and societies developed, there was a proliferation in the forms of literature. Developments in print technology allowed for literature to be distributed and experienced on an unprecedented scale, which has culminated in the twenty-first century in electronic literature.




There have been various attempts to define "literature".[1] Simon and Delyse Ryan begin their attempt to answer the question "What is Literature?" with the observation:

The quest to discover a definition for "literature" is a road that is much travelled, though the point of arrival, if ever reached, is seldom satisfactory. Most attempted definitions are broad and vague, and they inevitably change over time. In fact, the only thing that is certain about defining literature is that the definition will change. Concepts of what is literature change over time as well.[2]

Definitions of literature have varied over time; it is a "culturally relative definition".[3] In Western Europe prior to the eighteenth century, literature as a term indicated all books and writing.[3] A more restricted sense of the term emerged during the Romantic period, in which it began to demarcate "imaginative" literature.[4][5] Contemporary debates over what constitutes literature can be seen as returning to the older, more inclusive notion of what constitutes literature. Cultural studies, for instance, takes as its subject of analysis both popular and minority genres, in addition to canonical works.[3]

The value judgement definition of literature considers it to exclusively include writing that possesses a literary quality or distinction, forming part of the so-called belles-lettres ('fine writing') tradition.[6] This is the definition used in the Encyclopædia BritannicaEleventh Edition (1910–11) when it classifies literature as "the best expression of the best thought reduced to writing."[7] However, this has the result that there is no objective definition of what constitutes "literature"; anything can be literature, and anything which is universally regarded as literature has the potential to be excluded, since value-judgements can change over time.[6]

The formalist definition is that the language of "literature" foregrounds poetic effects; it is the "literariness" or "poeticity" of literature that distinguishes it from ordinary speech or other kinds of writing (e.g. journalism).[8][9] Jim Meyer considers this a useful characteristic in explaining the use of the term to mean published material in a particular field (e.g. "Scientific literature"), as such writing must use language according to particular standards.[1] The problem with the formalist definition is that in order to say that literature deviates from ordinary uses of language, those uses must first be identified; this is difficult because "ordinary language" is an unstable category, differing according to social categories and across history.[10]

Etymologically, the term derives from Latin literatura/litteratura "learning, a writing, grammar," originally "writing formed with letters," from litera/littera "letter".[11] In spite of this, the term has also been applied to spoken or sung texts.[1][12]

Major forms[edit]


Main article: Poetry
calligram by Guillaume Apollinaire. These are a type of poem in which the written words are arranged in such a way to produce a visual image.

Poetry is a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of,prosaic ostensible meaning.[13] Poetry has traditionally been distinguished from prose by its being set in verse;[a] prose is cast insentences, poetry in lines; the syntax of prose is dictated by meaning, whereas that of poetry is held across metre or the visual aspects of the poem.[18] Prior to the nineteenth century, poetry was commonly understood to be something set in metrical lines; accordingly, in 1658 a definition of poetry is "any kind of subject consisting of Rythm or Verses".[13] Possibly as a result of Aristotle's influence (his Poetics), "poetry" before the nineteenth century was usually less a technical designation for verse than a normative category of fictive or rhetorical art.[19] As a form it may pre-date literacy, with the earliest works being composed within and sustained by an oral tradition;[20][21] hence it constitutes the earliest example of literature.


Main article: Prose

Prose is a form of language that possesses ordinary syntax and natural speech rather than rhythmic structure; in which regard, along with its measurement in sentences rather than lines, it differs from poetry.[18][22] On the historical development of prose, Richard Graff notes that "[In the case of Ancient Greece] recent scholarship has emphasized the fact that formal prose was a comparatively late development, an "invention" properly associated with the classical period".[23]

  • Novel: a long fictional prose narrative. It was the form's close relation to real life that differentiated it from the chivalric romance;[24][25]in most European languages the equivalent term is roman, indicating the proximity of the forms.[25] In English, the term emerged from the Romance languages in the late fifteenth century, with the meaning of "news"; it came to indicate something new, without a distinction between fact or fiction.[26] Although there are many historical prototypes, so-called "novels before the novel",[27] the modern novel form emerges late in cultural history—roughly during the eighteenth century.[28] Initially subject to much criticism, the novel has acquired a dominant position amongst literary forms, both popularly and critically.[25][29][30]
  • Novella: in purely quantitative terms, the novella exists between the novel and short story; the publisher Melville House classifies it as "Too short to be a novel, too long to be a short story".[31] There is no precise definition in terms of word or page count.[32] Literary prizes and publishing houses often have their own arbitrary limits,[33] which vary according to their particular intentions. Summarising the variable definitions of the novella, William Giraldi concludes "[it is a form] whose identity seems destined to be disputed into perpetuity".[34] It has been suggested that the size restriction of the form produces various stylistic results, both some that are shared with the novel or short story,[35][36]and others unique to the form.[37]
  • Short story: a dilemma in defining the "short story" as a literary form is how to, or whether one should, distinguish it from any short narrative; hence it also has a contested origin,[38] variably suggested as the earliest short narratives (e.g. the Bible), early short story writers (e.g. Edgar Allan Poe), or the clearly modern short story writers (e.g.Anton Chekhov).[39] Apart from its distinct size, various theorists have suggested that the short story has a characteristic subject matter or structure;[40][41] these discussions often position the form in some relation to the novel.[42]


The history of literature follows closely the development of civilization. When defined exclusively as written work, Ancient Egyptian literature,[43] along with Sumerian literature are considered the world's oldest literatures.[44] The primary genres of the literature of Ancient Egyptdidactic texts, hymns and prayers, and tales—were almost entirely written in verse;[45] while use of poetic devices is clearly recognisable, theprosody of the verse is unknown.[46]

Different historical periods are reflected in literature. National and tribal sagas, accounts of the origin of the world and of customs, and myths which sometimes carry moral or spiritual messages predominate in the pre-urban eras. The epics of Homer, dating from the early to middle Iron age, and the great Indian epics of a slightly later period, have more evidence of deliberate literary authorship, surviving like the older myths through oral tradition for long periods before being written down.

As a more urban culture developed, academies provided a means of transmission for speculative and philosophical literature in early civilizations, resulting in the prevalence of literature in Ancient ChinaAncient IndiaPersia and Ancient Greece and Rome. Many works of earlier periods, even in narrative form, had a covert moral or didactic purpose, such as the Sanskrit Panchatantra or the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Drama and satire also developed as urban culture provided a larger public audience, and later readership, for literary production. Lyric poetry (as opposed to epic poetry) was often the speciality of courts and aristocratic circles, particularly in East Asia where songs were collected by the Chinese aristocracy as poems, the most notable being the Shijing or Book of Songs. Over a long period, the poetry of popular pre-literate balladry and song interpenetrated and eventually influenced poetry in the literary medium.

In ancient China, early literature was primarily focused on philosophy, historiographymilitary science, agriculture, and poetry. China, the origin of modern paper making and woodblock printing, produced one of the world's first print cultures.[47] Much of Chinese literature originates with theHundred Schools of Thought period that occurred during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (769-269 BCE). The most important of these include the Classics of Confucianism, of Daoism, of Mohism, of Legalism, as well as works of military science (e.g. Sun Tzu's The Art of War) and Chinese history (e.g. Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian). Ancient Chinese literature had a heavy emphasis on historiography, with often very detailed court records. An exemplary piece of narrative history of ancient China was the Zuo Zhuan, which was compiled no later than 389 BCE, and attributed to the blind 5th century BCE historian Zuo Qiuming.

In ancient India, literature originated from stories that were originally orally transmitted. Early genres included dramafablessutras and epic poetrySanskrit literature begins with the Vedas, dating back to 1500–1000 BCE, and continues with the Sanskrit Epics of Iron Age India. The Vedas are among the oldest sacred texts. The Samhitas (vedic collections) date to roughly 1500–1000 BCE, and the "circum-Vedic" texts, as well as the redaction of the Samhitas, date to c. 1000-500 BCE, resulting in a Vedic period, spanning the mid 2nd to mid 1st millennium BCE, or theLate Bronze Age and the Iron Age.[48] The period between approximately the 6th to 1st centuries BC saw the composition and redaction of the two most influential Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, with subsequent redaction progressing down to the 4th century AD.

In ancient Greece, the epics of Homer, who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Hesiod, who wrote Works and Days and Theogony, are some of the earliest, and most influential, of Ancient Greek literature. Classical Greek genres included philosophy, poetry, historiography, comedies and dramasPlato and Aristotleauthored philosophical texts that are the foundation of Western philosophySappho and Pindar were influential lyrical poets, and Herodotus and Thucydides were early Greek historians. Although drama was popular in Ancient Greece, of the hundreds of tragedies written and performed during the classical age, only a limited number of plays by three authors still exist: AeschylusSophocles, and Euripides. The plays of Aristophanes provide the only real examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy, the earliest form of Greek Comedy, and are in fact used to define the genre.[49]

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,German writer and author of the Faust books

Roman histories and biographies anticipated the extensive mediaeval literature of lives of saints and miraculous chronicles, but the most characteristic form of the Middle Ages was the romance, an adventurous and sometimes magical narrative with strong popular appeal. Controversial, religious, political and instructional literature proliferated during the Renaissance as a result of the invention of printing, while the mediaeval romance developed into a more character-based and psychological form of narrative, the novel, of which early and important examples are the Chinese Monkey and the German Faust books.

In the Age of Reason philosophical tracts and speculations on history and human nature integrated literature with social and political developments. The inevitable reaction was the explosion of Romanticism in the later 18th century which reclaimed the imaginative and fantastical bias of old romances and folk-literature and asserted the primacy of individual experience and emotion. But as the 19th-century went on, European fiction evolved towards realism and naturalism, the meticulous documentation of real life and social trends. Much of the output of naturalism was implicitly polemical, and influenced social and political change, but 20th century fiction and drama moved back towards the subjective, emphasising unconscious motivations and social and environmental pressures on the individual. Writers such asProustEliotJoyceKafka and Pirandello exemplify the trend of documenting internal rather than external realities.

Genre fiction also showed it could question reality in its 20th century forms, in spite of its fixed formulas, through the enquiries of the skeptical detective and the alternative realities of science fiction. The separation of "mainstream" and "genre" forms (including journalism) continued to blur during the period up to our own times. William Burroughs, in his early works, and Hunter S. Thompson expanded documentary reporting into strong subjective statements after the second World War, and post-modern critics have disparaged the idea of objective realism in general.


Main article: List of literary awards

There are numerous awards recognising achievement and contribution in literature. Given the diversity of the field, awards are typically limited in scope, usually on: form, genre, language, nationality and output (e.g. for first-time writers or debut novels).[50]

The Nobel Prize in Literature was one of the five Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel in 1895,[51] and is awarded to an author on the basis of their body of work, rather than to, or for, a particular work itself.[b] Other literary prizes for which all nationalities are eligible include: the Neustadt International Prize for Literature, the Man Booker International Prize and the Franz Kafka Prize.


An essay consists of a discussion of a topic from an author's personal point of view, exemplified by works by Michel de Montaigne or by Charles Lamb.

Genres related to the essay may include the memoir and the epistle.

Other prose literature[edit]

Philosophicalhistoricaljournalistic, and scientific writings are traditionally ranked as literature. They offer some of the oldest prose writings in existence; novels and prose storiesearned the names "fiction" to distinguish them from factual writing or nonfiction, which writers historically have crafted in prose.

Natural science[edit]

As advances and specialization have made new scientific research inaccessible to most audiences, the "literary" nature of science writing has become less pronounced over the last two centuries. Now, science appears mostly in journals. Scientific works of AristotleCopernicus, and Newton still exhibit great value, but since the science in them has largely become outdated, they no longer serve for scientific instruction. Yet, they remain too technical to sit well in most programmes of literary study. Outside of "history of science" programmes, students rarely read such works.


Philosophy has become an increasingly academic discipline. More of its practitioners lament this situation than occurs with the sciences; nonetheless most new philosophical work appears in academic journals. Major philosophers through history—PlatoAristotle, Socrates, AugustineDescartesKierkegaardNietzsche—have become as canonical as any writers. Some recent philosophy works are argued to merit the title "literature", such as some of the works by Simon Blackburn; but much of it does not, and some areas, such aslogic, have become extremely technical to a degree similar to that of mathematics.


A significant portion of historical writing ranks as literature, particularly the genre known as creative nonfiction. So can a great deal of journalism, such as literary journalism. However these areas have become extremely large, and often have a primarily utilitarian purpose: to record data or convey immediate information. As a result the writing in these fields often lacks a literary quality, although it often and in its better moments has that quality. Major "literary" historians include HerodotusThucydides and Procopius, all of whom count as canonical literary figures.


Law offers more ambiguity. Some writings of Plato and Aristotle, the law tables of Hammurabi of Babylon, or even the early parts of the Bible could be seen as legal literature.Roman civil law as codified in the Corpus Juris Civilis during the reign of Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire has a reputation as significant literature. The founding documents of many countries, including Constitutions and Law Codes, can count as literature; however, most legal writings rarely exhibit much literary merit, as they tend to be rather garrulous.


play or drama is another classical literary form that has continued to evolve over the years. It generally comprises chiefly dialogue between characters, and usually aims at dramatic / theatrical performance (see theatre) rather than at reading. During the 18th and 19th centuries, opera developed as a combination of poetry, drama, and music. Nearly all drama took verse form until comparatively recently. Shakespeare could be considered drama. Romeo and Juliet, for example, is a classic romantic drama generally accepted as literature.

Greek drama exemplifies the earliest form of drama of which we have substantial knowledge. Tragedy, as a dramatic genre, developed as a performance associated with religiousand civic festivals, typically enacting or developing upon well-known historical or mythological themes. Tragedies generally presented very serious themes. With the advent of newer technologies, scripts written for non-stage media have been added to this form. War of the Worlds (radio) in 1938 saw the advent of literature written for radio broadcast, and many works of Drama have been adapted for film or television. Conversely, television, film, and radio literature have been adapted to printed or electronic media.

Other narrative forms[edit]

  • Electronic literature is a literary genre consisting of works that originate in digital environments.
  • Films, videos and broadcast soap operas have carved out a niche which often parallels the functionality of prose fiction.
  • Graphic novels and comic books present stories told in a combination of sequential artwork, dialogue and text.

Genres of literature[edit]

Literary genre is a mode of categorising literature. The term originates from French, designating a proposed type or class.[52] However, such classes are subject to change, and have been used in different ways in different periods and traditions.

Literary techniques[edit]

Main article: Literary technique

literary technique or literary device can be used by authors in order to enhance the written framework of a piece of literature, and produce specific effects. Literary techniques encompass a wide range of approaches to crafting a work: whether a work is narrated in first-person or from another perspective, whether to use a traditional linear narrative or a nonlinear narrative, or the choice of literary genre, are all examples of literary technique. They may indicate to a reader that there is a familiar structure and presentation to a work, such as a conventional murder-mystery novel; or, the author may choose to experiment with their technique to surprise the reader.

In this way, use of a technique can lead to the development of a new genre, as was the case with one of the first modern novels, Pamela by Samuel RichardsonPamela is written as a collection of letter-writing correspondence, called "epistolary technique"; by using this technique, Pamela strengthened the tradition of the epistolary novel, a genre which had been practiced for some time already but without the same acclaim.

Literary technique is distinguished from literary device, as military strategy is distinguished from military tactics. Devices are specific constructions within the narrative that make it effective. Examples include metaphorsimileellipsis, narrative motifs, and allegory. Even simple word play functions as a literary device. The narrative mode may be considered a literary device, such as the use of stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Literary criticism implies a critique and evaluation of a piece of literature and, in some cases, it is used to improve a work in progress or a classical piece, as with an ongoing theatre production. Literary editors can serve a similar purpose for the authors with whom they work. There are many types of literary criticism and each can be used to critique a piece in a different way or critique a different aspect of a piece.

Legal status[edit]


Literary works have been protected by copyright law from unauthorised reproduction since at least 1710.[53] Literary works are defined by copyright law to mean any work, other than a dramatic or musical work, which is written, spoken or sung, and accordingly includes (a) a table or compilation (other than a database), (b) a computer program, (c) preparatory design material for a computer program, and (d) a database.

It should be noted that literary works are not limited to works of literature, but include all works expressed in print or writing (other than dramatic or musical works).[54]

See also[edit]

Related topics
Associations devoted to the study of language and literature



  1. Jump up^ This distinction is complicated by various hybrid forms such as the prose poem[14] and prosimetrum,[15] and more generally by the fact that prose possesses rhythm.[16] Abram Lipsky refers to it as an "open secret" that "prose is not distinguished from poetry by lack of rhythm".[17]
  2. Jump up^ However, in some instances a work has been cited in the explanation of why the award was given.


  1. Jump up to:a b c Meyer, Jim (1997). "What is Literature? A Definition Based on Prototypes".Work Papers of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, University of North Dakota Session41 (1). Retrieved 11 February 2014.
  2. Jump up^ Simon Ryan; Delyse Ryan. "What is Literature?"Foundation: Fundamentals of Literature and Drama. Australian Catholic University. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
  3. Jump up to:a b c Leitch et al.The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 28
  4. Jump up^ Ross, "The Emergence of "Literature": Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century", 406
  5. Jump up^ Eagleton, Literary theory: an introduction, 16
  6. Jump up to:a b Eagleton, Literary theory: an introduction, 9
  7. Jump up^ Biswas, Critique of Poetics, 538
  8. Jump up^ Leitch et al.The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 4
  9. Jump up^ Eagleton, Literary theory: an introduction, 2–6
  10. Jump up^ Eagleton, Literary theory: an introduction, 4
  11. Jump up^ "literature (n.)". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
  12. Jump up^ Finnegan, Ruth (1974). "How Oral Is Oral Literature?"Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 37 (1): 5264. Retrieved 10 February 2014. (subscription required)
  13. Jump up to:a b "poetry, n."Oxford English Dictionary. OUP. Retrieved 13 February 2014.(subscription required)
  14. Jump up^ "Poetic Form: Prose Poem" Academy of American Poets. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  15. Jump up^ Preminger, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 981
  16. Jump up^ Preminger, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 979
  17. Jump up^ Lipsky, Abram (1908). "Rhythm in Prose"The Sewanee Review 16 (3): 277–89. Retrieved 15 February 2014. (subscription required)
  18. Jump up to:a b Preminger, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 938–9
  19. Jump up^ Ross, "The Emergence of "Literature": Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century", 398
  20. Jump up^ Finnegan, Ruth H. (1977). Oral poetry: its nature, significance, and social context. Indiana University Press. p. 66.
  21. Jump up^ Magoun, Jr., Francis P. (1953). "Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry"Speculum 28 (3): 446–67. Retrieved 13 February 2014. (subscription required)
  22. Jump up^ Alison Booth; Kelly J. Mays. "Glossary: P"LitWeb, the Norton Introduction to Literature Studyspace. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  23. Jump up^ Graff, Richard (2005). "Prose versus Poetry in Early Greek Theories of Style".Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 23 (4): 303–35. (subscription required)
  24. Jump up^ Goody, Jack (2006). "From Oral to Written: An Anthropological Breakthrough in Storytelling". In Franco Moretti. The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography, and Culture. Princeton: Princeton UP. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-691-04947-2.
  25. Jump up to:a b c "The Novel"A Guide to the Study of Literature: A Companion Text for Core Studies 6, Landmarks of LiteratureBrooklyn College. Retrieved 22 February 2014.
  26. Jump up^ Sommerville, C. J. (1996). The News Revolution in England: Cultural Dynamics of Daily Information. Oxford: OUP. p. 18.
  27. Jump up^ Goody, The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture, 19
  28. Jump up^ Goody, The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture, 20
  29. Jump up^ Goody, The Novel: History, Geography, and Culture, 29
  30. Jump up^ Franco Moretti, ed. (2006). "The Novel in Search of Itself: A Historical Morphology".The Novel, Volume 2: Forms and Themes. Princeton: Princeton UP. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-691-04948-9.
  31. Jump up^ Antrim, Taylor (2010). "In Praise of Short"The Daily Beast. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  32. Jump up^ Giraldi 796
  33. Jump up^ Ripatrazone, Nick. "Taut, Not Trite: On the Novella"The Millions. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  34. Jump up^ Giraldi 793
  35. Jump up^ Giraldi 795–6
  36. Jump up^ Fetherling, George (2006). "Briefly, the case for the novella". Seven Oaks Magazine. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  37. Jump up^ Norton, Ingrid. "Of Form, E-Readers, and Thwarted Genius: End of a Year with Short Novels"Open Letters Monthly. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
  38. Jump up^ Boyd, William"A short history of the short story". Prospect Magazine. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  39. Jump up^ Colibaba, Ştefan (2010). "The Nature of the Short Story: Attempts at Definition".Synergy 6 (2): 220–230. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
  40. Jump up^ Rohrberger, Mary; Dan E. Burns (1982). "Short Fiction and the Numinous Realm: Another Attempt at Definition". Modern Fiction Studies. XXVIII (6).
  41. Jump up^ May, Charles (1995). The Short Story. The Reality of Artifice. New York: Twain.
  42. Jump up^ Marie Louise Pratt (1994). "The Short Story: The Long and the Short of It". In Charles May. Athens: Ohio UP.
  43. Jump up^ Forster, Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology, xix
  44. Jump up^ Black et al. The Literature of Ancient Sumer, xix
  45. Jump up^ Forster, Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology, vii
  46. Jump up^ Forster, Ancient Egyptian Literature: An Anthology, viii–ix
  47. Jump up^ A Hyatt Mayor, Prints and People, Metropolitan Museum of Art/Princeton, 1971, nos 1-4. ISBN 0-691-00326-2
  48. Jump up^ Gavin Flood sums up mainstream estimates, according to which the Rigveda was compiled from as early as 1500 BCE over a period of several centuries. Flood 1996, p. 37
  49. Jump up^ Aristophanes: Butts K.J.Dover (ed), Oxford University Press 1970, Intro. page X.
  50. Jump up^ John Stock; Kealey Rigden. "Man Booker 2013: Top 25 literary prizes"The Telegraph. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  51. Jump up^ "Facts on the Nobel Prize in Literature" Nobel Media AB. Retrieved 8 March 2014.
  52. Jump up^ M. H. Abrams, Glossary of Literary Terms, Harcourt/New York, 1999. pp.108
  53. Jump up^ The Statute of Anne 1710 and the Literary Copyright Act 1842 used the term "book". However, since 1911 the statutes have referred to literary works.
  54. Jump up^ University of London Press v. University Tutorial Press [1916]

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