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'Literature' As Bob Dylan Sees It

We know how the Nobel Prize committee defines literature, but how does the dictionary?

Literature was among our top lookups on June 6th, 2017, after the Nobel Foundation released a recording of a speech given by Bob Dylan, last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, as his acceptance of the award.

After Bob Dylan was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, the literary commentariat wrestled with a fundamental question: Can song lyrics be literature?
—Ben Sisario, The New York Times, 5 Jun. 2017

Literature comes from the Latin litteratura (“writing, grammar, learning”), and has been in use in English since the middle of the 15th century. The meaning of the word has changed over the past 500 years, although the sense in which it is used in reference to Dylan (“writings in prose or verse; especially: writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest”) is perhaps the one most commonly employed today. The initial meaning of literature was “ knowledge of books, literary culture.”

Sick man lookin’ for the doctor’s cure
Lookin’ at his hands for the lines that were
And into every masterpiece of literature
For dignity
—Bob Dylan, Dignity, Bob Dylan: The Lyrics, 2004

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