How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Revised Edition:
A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines
Thomas C. Foster
Anyone who wants to be a better, more thoughtful reader should invest in How to Read Like a Professor. In the book, Foster, who retired from the University of Michigan-Flint in 2014, helps readers develop a deeper and more enriching experience of reading. Several times he emphasizes that there is really, fundamentally, only one story. While I think that is overstating things, he is correct that all of literature is engaged in an ongoing, unending conversation, and any one work can’t be seen in isolation.
Certain plot structures persist, archetypal characters recur, and works of literature refer to, draw upon, and play off each other. The more a reader knows about the body of literature and practices close reading, the more she will be rewarded for her efforts. Does this mean that reading isn’t worthwhile without this effort? Of course not! Good works of literature tell compelling stories with interesting characters, and that is enough for some readers in certain situations.
Works of literature are unique as are the people who consume them. Being a better reader then requires a flexible approach. Since there isn’t a single best way to analyze texts, Foster illustrates his strategies through examples and in studying not just the content of his analysis but also the process he used to arrive at it, readers can learn how to emulate him.
The chapters are loosely based on themes, such as eating, weather, illness, religion, sex, and so on. Foster also includes a chapter on Shakespeare and one on Greek mythology and how those stories continue to influence writers today. The final chapters serve as a type of empowering pep talk, cautioning readers to be aware of the political and sociological context on which a work was written and reminding them that they are better at analyzing literature than they think. A culminating chapter reproduces the short story, “The Garden Party,” as a practice run. I encourage you to read the story and collect your thoughts before reading Foster’s summary.
Although the examples are skewed toward classic literature, with good reason, Foster cites Western literature (defined widely as including novels, short stories, poems, films, and even songs) published as late as 2009 (Let the Great World Spin). Beloved and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison illustrate several theme and symbols as does Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Foster also discusses films (e.g., O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and fairy tales. I learned a lot about books I’ve already read and been inspired to put other on my TBR list, maybe even Ulysses by James Joyce. Or maybe not.
Foster writes in an engaging, humorous, and irreverent yet authoritative conversational style. At time he is in dialogue with himself or a hypothesized student, and on the rare occasions he uses that device it works to cut through ambiguity. He makes readers feel empowered. Finishing How to Read Literature Like a Professor, you will gain insight into many literary works (from The Iliad to A Clockwork Orange), become attuned to watch for certain elements in the texts (e.g., signs of a quest; indications that a character might be Christlike), and gain confidence in your ability to interpret a text.
Foster reminds us that the best authors include the necessary interpretive tools within their creations. After all, they want to convey their message. Subtlety provides a rewarding challenge. Obfuscation fails by author and reader. A writer might include the most exquisite message but if no one understands it, the point is lost.
The more you exercise the symbolic imagination, the better and quicker it works. We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters those of the writer, and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to. Imagination isn’t fantasy. That is to say, we can’t simply invent meaning without the writer, or if we can, we ought not to hold her to it. Rather, a reader’s imagination is the act of one creative intelligence engaging another.
As much as I liked the book, I had a few quibbles. Though the focus on Western literature is understandable given the target readership and adding books from non-Western cultures is beyond its scope, I wish Foster had acknowledged this limitation and perhaps briefly compared and contrasted literature from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East with that he discussed.
If he included the same work in different chapters (e.g., Song of Solomon), Foster at times repeated himself as if the writing was independent and/or uncoordinated; in other words, some novels and stories were summarized twice.
Most people who pick up How to Read Like a Professor likely do so because it is assigned reading. I encourage you to not to see it as a required text but to read it to enhance your own reading practice. I consider myself a fairy sophisticated reader, yet found the book valuable and I look forward to using its ideas.