Literature is both the foundation of human knowledge and the record of human experience. The word itself stems from the Latin “litteratura,” meaning writing, grammar and learning. Although usually associated with creative works, the term encompasses the writings of all subjects, nations and cultures. Without literacy, the ability to read and write, there is no literature and thus no connection to the shared heritage of mankind as captured by the written word.

The History of Writing

Scholars define the period of human development before writing as prehistory, when speech, gestures and other modes of communication are believed to have connected individuals and tribes. Barry Powell, a professor emeritus of classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes the difficulty of pinning down “the forerunners of writing” in the primitive art of the Paleolithic Period, roughly 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 B.C. But he shows how in the Early Bronze Age, 2800 to 2400 B.C., cuneiform writing in Sumerian culture and hieroglyphic writing in Egyptian culture reflect the word order of speech. By 800 B.C., the Greek alphabet had been invented, and Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey” appeared in written formats.

Western Literature

The study and practice of literature is cumulative, building a culture's identity over time. From the philosophy and epic poetry of ancient Greece sprang the canon of Western literature. Each successive period of history produced distinct literary works reflective of the spirit of the times but also containing elements of preceding epochs. Medieval literature incorporated the tenets of Christianity, whereas literature of the Renaissance and Enlightenment responded to advances in art and science. The Romantic movement of the 19th century broke from institutional knowledge and explored the creativity of the individual. Modernist and postmodernist literature of the 20th century couldn't help but mirror that individual in the greater context of industrialization, world war and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Scientific Literature

Every field of study produces its own literature that serves as the foundation for future learning. In science, for example, certain breakthrough texts comprise the canon. In 2006, the editors of "Discover" magazine published a list of the greatest science books of all time. Among the top 10 were Charles Darwin’s “The Voyage of the Beagle” and “The Origin of Species,” published in 1845 and 1859, respectively; Isaac Newton’s “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” published in 1687; Nicolaus Copernicus’ “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres,” published in 1543; and Aristotle’s “Physics,” published around 330 B.C. Each entry represents a turning point in scientific achievement. The chronological range alone suggests how a body of literature connects people over centuries and forms the basis of any discipline.

Literacy in the Modern World

Not only is the ability to read and write crucial to human understanding, it’s necessary to compete in a complex global economy. According to the World Literacy Foundation, the cost of illiteracy to the worldwide economy is estimated to be 2 percent of global gross domestic product. An interim report published in 2012 lists the ways in which illiteracy hinders economic growth, including the inability to fill out a job application, balance a checkbook, respond to correspondence in the workplace, use a computer or smartphone and complete higher education or training. When these factors add up, illiteracy significantly limits earning potential. Illiterate people earn 30 to 42 percent less than their literate counterparts, the foundation reported. In the digital age, higher literacy rates enable greater access to information, which leads to economic as well as cultural enrichment.