How to Read Literature Like a Professor
by Thomas C. Foster

A Review by Scott finished Feb. 22, 2010

This review will contain spoilers!

In many sentences:

How to Read Literature Like a Professor was simultaneously fascinating, frustrating, entertaining, motivating, and discouraging. I would like to consider each of these individually. The fascinating part came in all the examples that Foster provides. I absolutely love seeing the subtle references and connections that are present in well-crafted novels. I literally get chills when I see how a story is in fact a retelling of an ancient myth or a biblical parable. Or when you see how some object or event is a symbol for a great life truth that permeates our very being.

At the same time, however, I often find this same stuff insanely frustrating. How was I supposed to know that? How was I supposed to make that connection? Am I really supposed to believe that the author planned all that out? Foster acknowledges this reaction throughout the text by asking these questions for us. Ultimately I find his explanations to be satisfying. He shows the evidence that supports his readings of the text, and when he presents it as he does, it's hard to argue against it. To be fair, though, I haven't read any of the works he uses as examples, so it may be more or less obvious in the actual text.

Also, he mentions periodically that if you as the reader make a connection or read something as a symbol, and there is evidence for it in the book you can't really be wrong. One of the aspects of reading that is so fun is our own engagement of the text and if our own personal experience lend to a certain reading, that reading is valid, even if the author did not originally intend it. In fact, it's practically impossible to validate a reading against what the author actually intended, so it's hard to dismiss someone's reaction as being inconsistent with the author's original vision. (Of course some works, Foster gives Animal Farm as an example, do have a specific intent that the author wants to get across, and so it is made more obvious.)

I say the book was specifically entertaining because, in addition to everything that made it fascinating, Foster writes it with a distinct voice. His tone is bright, humorous, and comfortable. It is very reminiscent of a professor who really wants to engage his students and not simply lecture to them. He made several humorous comments that had me laughing out loud, as well as giving clever, memorable titles to each of his chapters. For example, we have the wonderful chapter duo of "It's all about Sex"¦" followed by ""¦Except Sex". Foster obviously had fun writing this book, and I'm happy to say that we are the direct recipients of the fun as we read.

Above all, though, Read Like a Professor is motivating. After ever chapter and during every example, I wanted to read whatever Foster was referring to. James Joyce? Bring him on. Even books I remember reading and hating (I'm looking at you Great Expectations) were made desirable again by Foster. There really isn't a better compliment that I can give this book than that it has me ready to read some great literature and a new and (hopefully) compelling way. I'm not just saying this, either - I picked up Dubliners at the library today and will be reading it next. Remember when I said I wanted every subject needed a Visual Display of Quantitative Information? Well, I think this book has been my Visual Display for literature, and that has me extremely excited.

Unfortunately, my excitement is riddled with discouragement. I know it will take experience and practice, but when I read Foster's examples (especially the "Test Case" at the end of the book) I couldn't help but think "there's no way I can ever do this. Why should I even try?" It's not as though I didn't "get" the short story example we read at the end of the text, but the idea of reading the story of Persephone into it (which Foster convinces me is a very valid and clever reading) is just so daunting that I can't help but be discouraged.

Nevertheless, I'm not going to let this discouragement get me down. Instead, I'm going to jump right into it, and hope that with enough practice, reading symbols and intertextuality will become second nature. And if not, I'll just stick with kids books and forget this ever happened.

One last thing I would like to say is that the subtitle is "A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines". However, I think a more accurate description would be a guide to reading behind the lines. Between the lines doesn't capture the "resonance" that Foster is talking about, but for some reason the idea of this depth residing behind the text is more satisfying to me.

Favorite Quote

"We - as readers or writers, tellers or listeners - understand each other, we share knowledge of the structures of our myths, we comprehend the logic of symbols, largely because we have access to the same swirl of story. We have only to reach out into the air and pluck a piece of it."

Thomas C. Foster in How to Read Literature Like a Professor

First Line

"Okay, so here's the deal: let's say, purely hypothetically, you're reading a book about an average sixteen-year-old kid in the summer of 1968."

Thomas C. Foster the First Line of How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Last Line

"And fare thee well."

Thomas C. Foster the Last Line of in How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Originally Published Jan. 1, 2003

Paperback edition:

299 pages - Feb. 18, 2003

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