Many scholars have embraced world literature as a project to understand literature’s role in a large-scale story of global inequality. Yet critics have paid remarkably little attention to one of the most unevenly distributed of the world’s resources: literacy itself. For most of human history, the written word has been the province of a privileged minority. This essay argues that current discussions of world literature have taken their shape from three print-based institutions — the mass literacy movements of the late nineteenth century, the publishing industry, and the university — all of which have valued writing at the expense of meaningful attention to oral works. Levine explores the serious political implications of effacing orality and proposes specific ways to incorporate orature into the institutions of world literature.

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