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Book Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster

Quests, flowers, rain, meals, Christ figures, sex and vampires, going south and going blind, it all means something.


How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Harper Collins, 2003, 332 pages



What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey?. Shares a meal? Gets drenched in a sudden rain shower? Often, there is much more going on in a novel or poem than is readily visible on the surface -- a symbol, maybe, that remains elusive, or an unexpected twist on a character -- and there's that sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning of a literary text keeps escaping you.

In this practical and amusing guide to literature, Thomas C. Foster shows how easy and gratifying it is to unlock those hidden truths, and to discover a world where a road leads to a quest; a shared meal may signify a communion; and rain, whether cleansing or destructive, is never just rain. Ranging from major themes to literary models, narrative devices, and form, How to Read Literature Like a Professor is the perfect companion for making your reading experience more enriching, satisfying, and fun.




I didn't take any literature classes in college, and until a couple of years ago, my reading habits had been rather lacking in anything outside of genre fiction since high school. So I've been not only reading more classics and lit-fic lately (and hence my impetus for starting the books1001 challenge and by the way those of you who are members send me your reviews before the end of the year!), but a fair number of "books about books." Unfortunately, I have found that literary theory mostly bores me. Modernist, postmodernist, deconstructionist, okay, I see how you can glean some interesting insights from such an approach, and I think a lot of literary analysis (for example, picking up on various ways in which books convey messages the author might not have intended) is helpful and originated in that kind of academic environment. But, ultimately I am just a reader who wants to enjoy books, without feeling like I might be missing something.

How to Read Literature Like a College Professor is not about literary criticism. In fact, there is no critiquing per se in it at all. Rather, it's basically an undergraduate course in metaphors, symbolism, and subtext written for a general audience. A trip across the road to deliver a care package to a poor family? It's a quest. A gauche American tourist who dies of malaria in Europe? It's a vampire story. What do quests and vampires represent? What does rain symbolize? Is that character really a Jesus figure? Who's riffing on Homer or Shakespeare?

Foster looks exclusively at Western literature, so all the metaphors and symbolism are rooted in the Western tradition. You'd need to do some reading on comparative literature to get a broader view. But in essence, Foster demonstrates that digging into what a story "really" means is largely an exercise in pattern recognition, which is something a geek like me can appreciate. "Where have I seen this before?" is the number one question you should be asking yourself if you're trying to dig into the subtext, and of course, being able to answer that question requires that you have read a lot of other books where the patterns you are looking for have appeared. In other words, there is no substitute for being well-read.

What's the point? Does it matter what the author "really" meant? Foster's students reasonably ask him sometimes whether or not authors deliberately intend all this symbolism to be found in their stories. The answer is: sometimes yes, sometimes no, but it doesn't really matter, though Foster does argue that the author's intent and the context and environment in which they were writing is relevant to analyzing their work. (Obviously, there are many other viewpoints on this.) He also points out that there really isn't a "correct" reading of anything, since no two readers are going to extract exactly the same list of symbols out of a text or come to the same conclusion. The point is to associate what you read with other things you have read and see all literature as part of some great whole in which the same small number of stories are being told and retold since the world began. Okay, that's my interpretation.

Maybe this doesn't interest you, but it interests me, and when Foster opened the book by pointing out how A Raisin in the Sun is a retelling of Faust, I wanted to read more. For the most part, there wasn't anything here that came as a revelation to me: I already know about quests and communions and Christ figures and that it's all about sex except when it isn't and that vampire stories aren't just about vampires. Mostly what I took out of this book was a new set of associations, as Foster drew some parallels that had not occurred to me before (some I agreed with, some I didn't), and a few more book recommendations.

The writing style is very informal -- Foster is trying very hard not to scare away the folks who have no desire to be buried in theory and lit-crit jargon. He includes the obligatory references to pop culture, from Star Wars to Harry Potter, but mostly focuses on what you'd call the Great Works.

Overall, a good read for anyone who didn't already take a course like this in college, but if you're an English major or a graduate student in literary studies, this probably reads like a dumbed down version of your freshman syllabus.



Verdict: A light but engaging look at recurring symbols and subtext in literature, written for non-grad students. You can start playing "Hey, does this mean they're actually screwing?", "Spot the vampire," and "Isn't it ironic?" with the books you read, or just nod and recognize allusions to other books. I'm not sure How to Read Literature like a College Professor quite lives up to its billing as something that will make your reading experience "more enriching and satisfying," and it certainly only scratches the surface of how college professors read literature, but it's a good introduction to Western-centric metaphors and literary references.
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