Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

how to read literature

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Summary: An introduction to the basics of understanding literature–symbols, themes, and contexts–that enrich our reading of literary fiction.

Have you ever read a literary work and had the feeling that there was so much more going on in the text than you were grasping? Or have you read a review of a book that you read, and felt that the reviewer saw much more in the text than you had? Have you felt that you describe the characters and summarize the plot, but wondered what all of it might signify (although sometimes a story is just a story, but not often in serious literature)? Or were you like me in literature courses where this was all brought up very seriously and pretentiously in ways that made you feel utterly stupid, or worse, where it was just assumed that you understood this stuff?

If you identified with any of these descriptions, I think you will welcome this book as a welcome aid to enrich your reading. For one thing, Foster engages us in an informal, offhand style that makes all the different literary devices he is discussing interesting and fun, and make you feel you are not as stupid as you thought. Here, for example is a passage from the chapter “Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)”:

“The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That’s why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they’re never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.”

Foster, who is the lit prof all of us wish we had, helps us to see that memory, symbol, and pattern are key to going beyond characters and plot. As we are reading, asking “where have I seen that before?” can be helpful to understanding what is going on. Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek mythology are three common sources upon which writers consciously or subconsciously draw. One of the key things is that “there’s only one story” and that writers draw upon what they’ve read, a phenomenon known as “intertextuality.” Have you ever felt your books are talking with each other? They just may be.

Then there are symbols, and the challenge of interpreting them: rain and weather, trips that are quests, shared meals that in some way signify communion, going into and coming out of water (baptism), all the symbols that point to sex, and the other things that sex points to.

Then there are patterns, like the vampire pattern–the older person who sucks the life out of the younger, innocent, the hero pattern and how it is usually those next to the hero who die (like the crew in the red uniforms on Star Trek) or the pattern of the Christ figure. Then of course, there is irony which turns the patterns on their heads.

Foster walks us through all of these, with a variety of examples from literary works. I found his use of these works to illustrate various elements from symbol to irony piqued my curiosity to read works I have not read. After covering these elements, he invites us to put them into practice with an exquisite short story by Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party.”

The book concludes with the encouragement to read what we like while offering a reading list of works he has mentioned throughout the work as places to start. What I most appreciated was his encouragement in the previous chapter in his discussion on Roland Barthes “death of the author.” His point is that what we really have access to is the text and our opinion of it. He urges:

“Don’t cede control of your opinions to critics, teachers, famous writers, or know-it-all professors. Listen to them, but read confidently and assertively, and don’t be ashamed or apologetic about your reading. You and I both know you’re capable and intelligent, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Trust the text and trust your instincts. You’ll rarely go far wrong.”

Now doesn’t that make you want to read great literature?

Review: I’d Rather Be Reading

I'd Rather Be Reading

I’d Rather Be Reading, Anne Bogel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays on the reading life with its unique joys and dilemmas, by a booklover, for booklovers.

I’d Rather Be Reading is a delightful set of essays for those of us who really love books and reading. If nothing else, it tells us that we are not alone. Anne Bogel is the host of the blog Modern Mrs Darcy (A Jane Austen reference) and the “What Should I Read Next” podcast. Not only does she write and speak on reading, she is a reader, one of our tribe. She writes, “We are readers. Books are an essential part of our lives and of our life stories. For us, reading isn’t just a hobby or a pastime; its a lifestyle.” This essay collection explores the nature of reading and the quirky aspects of our reading lives that made me wonder, “have you been to my house?”

She opens with an essay on confessing your literary sins, from those unpaid library fines to the fact that you just can’t get excited about the book everyone else absolutely loves. She describes how books sometimes find us, particularly when they come up in several different, unrelated conversations in the same week. She reminds us of the books that first hooked us on stories and the books that have made us cry. In a variation of the idea that we are all the ages we have ever been, she reflects on the different readers she has been from the child who encountered A Wrinkle in Time to the twenty-something reading spiritual memoirs to the young mother rediscovering children’s books. She writes of fulfilling a fantasy of many of us booklovers to be a bookseller, at least for a day. She talks about her “inner circle” bookshelf of books by family (or those who are like family) and friends.

There are the darker sides of our love of books–the deadly sin of being “book bossy” in our recommendations of books to others (“you really should read this”). There is the quest to organize our shelves and what to do when we run out of them. She has a whole chapter on bookworm problems and the recurring thought of having more books than time and life to read them.

Even these are handled with self-deprecatory humor. The overall tone of the book is joyful–a celebration of what books and reading mean in the lives of those who are “book people.” She delights, as have others of us, in finding a “book twin.” She talks of her discovery of the delights of the “acknowledgements” pages in books (something I discovered only later in life). She concludes with an essay on reading journals and the preference to “rather be reading.”

This book came along about the time I was reading Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well (my review). Both books are celebrations of the reading life, and how our books shape who we are. Prior’s book focuses literary fiction and how our reading might help us reflect on and live into different qualities of virtue. Anne Bogel’s book is a good complement. It is lighter in tone, and helps us hopeless bibliophiles laugh at ourselves, find words for why we love books so much, and know there are many others in the tribe.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Books on Books

20160601_204859One of the ways you know you are a bibliophile is when your reading includes books on books, or bookish subjects! Margaret Aldrich posted a great list recently on BookRiot of 100 Must-Read Books about BooksWhat particularly impressed me about this list were the number of fiction books that “give books a starring role.” About the only one on the list I had read was Fahrenheit 451, and that in my adolescence! One things bibliophiles always like is finding a whole new treasure trove of books. In this list I think I found one.

The non-fiction list was equally delightful. Roughly, it divided into two kinds of books. One was lists of great books, or the experience of reading them. We have for example, 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall. Books like these are a great shortcut to discovering interesting books you’ve not heard of. I discovered there is even a website based on the book where you can go through and check off all the books on the list that you’ve read and compare your reading with that of others.

The other part of the list are books having to do with various aspects of our passion for reading. One that looked intriguing was At Home With Books: How Booklovers Live With and Care for Their Libraries.  Personally, I am more on the end of being interested in what is between the covers, but there are many people who collect and lovingly display books and a number of books on this list discussed this aspect of our love of books. One that I reviewed not too long ago is about The Man Who Loved Books Too Much describing the search for and character of a book thief, and why he loved stealing and collecting books. There was one book that I thought aptly described my own life as a bibliophile: The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle with the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Meaning to Read by Nick Hornby. The title nails it for me, particularly if you add in the books that show up in my mailbox or on my doorstep from publishers to be reviewed.

I was surprised not to find David Denby’s Great Books, describing his decision at forty-eight to enroll in Columbia’s two core courses on the Great Books. In a similar vein, the list did not include the account of the birth of the “Great Books” phenomenon, A Great Idea at the Time (reviewed here). I suspect that this idea has fallen out of favor with the rejection of the idea of a canon of literature and the interest in more diverse books and voices. The World Between Two Covers sounded like a great way to read one’s way around the world.

I also have a couple on my TBR stacks (pictured above) that I did not find here that look interesting. One is Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books & Co, by Lynne Tillman. This is the story of a classic New York City bookstore from its opening to its closing. So many bookstores have a lifecycle like this, and leave behind a legion of fans who loved hanging around them. The other is BiblioTECH: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, by John Palfrey. I’m intrigued with the whole question of how libraries are defining their mission with the advent of so many new technologies.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Margaret Aldrich’s post is that it part of a whole other genre of writing about books, of which BookRiot and Bob on Books are a part. There are a whole group of us who are not writing books about books per se’, but in the serialized format of blogging are doing what amounts to the same thing. Perhaps we are trying to recover, in the words of another title on Aldrich’s list, The Lost Art of Readingperhaps because we believe the assertion of the subtitle, that “books matter in a distracted time.”