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?