How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

I have been enjoying my time over the past year of writing down what I think about books as I finish them.  It has added a depth to my understanding of books that wasn't there in the past.  Yes, I always enjoyed reading, but I never spent much time meditating on what I read, or digesting it.  Instead, I would read a book, finish it, and immediately move on to the next work.  Now that I don't let myself do that, I'm enjoying reading more than ever.

I've come to realize, though, that I don't have that many things to say about books.  Most of my discussions consist of enjoying a particular plot element, character, structure, tone, or style of the book.  Even when I identify these elements, however, I have a hard time expressing exactly what I like so much about them.  Don't get me wrong - it's good to enjoy these aspects of books.  At the same time, though, I know there is more going on that I'm missing.  But where do I start?  Do I just make things up?

All of these questions lead me to How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and the book has absolutely met my high hopes for it.  Each chapter provides different elements to seek out when reading a book in order to get a deeper understanding of the text.  For example, it encourages you to ask questions such as "why is this character sick?  and why this particular illness?"  Or, "why is it raining/snowing/sunny/cloudy?  What is the author trying to tell me with the weather or the seasons?"  Fortunately Foster doesn't just tell us to ask the questions, but gives us numerous possible answers through examples of a wide range of literature.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but more than that, I hope that it improves my ability to read literature.  I want to know what is going on behind the text - I want my reading experiences to have depth and to (as Foster puts it) resonate more deeply.  Unfortunately, I don't think I'm going to be very good at it.  I'm sure practice will help, but I'm afraid my mind simply doesn't work this way.  At the end of the day I may always be more of a surface level reader.  That isn't such a terrible thing, as long as I continue to enjoy reading, but I love to hear about the symbolism and metaphors present in a book, so not being able to see those connections myself will be frustrating.

Still, I'm going to try and, over time, I hope to have more posts that ask these type of questions and try to answer them, and hopefully my insights won't be too elementary for anyone with a true literary background.  Oh, and remember when I said that I wish every subject matter got the same treatment that data graphics received in Visual Display of Quantitative Information?  Well, this has been my Visual Display for literature.

"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" (192).

Feel free to read for more of my thoughts on the book in the review on the right, since there aren't really any spoilers to be had.


Scott on 03/02/2010 7:41 a.m.

Thanks - I would definitely recommend it if you are interested in pursuing a more technical, academic approach to literature.

One thing I've noticed, though, and that I'm currently struggling with, is balancing reading for pleasure with reading for depth. Basically, I don't want to focus so much on extracting deep meanings from literature that I forget to enjoy the actual reading experience. Reading isn't work, and I don't ever want it to feel that way!

Rachel on 03/02/2010 8:37 a.m.

I'm a big non-fiction reader. This was a cool review. Thanks for commenting at Home Girl's Book Blog. So great to have a boy in the mix. To dilute the estrogen, and all that. :)

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