Book Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

There is no crash course in literature quite like the revised edition of Tomas C. Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. Symbolism, theme, cultural context—you could be awakened to these elements in any great work by taking a full course. Foster’s book is an analytical guide rife with classic examples and explanations, tailored to the unliterary mind curious to become more literate.

The title itself strikes at our envy, and even our disdain for ivory tower condescension: In the introduction Foster himself, a professor, admits that it seems “at times as if the professor is either inventing interpretations out of thin air or else performing parlor tricks, a sort of analytical slight of hand.”

As a teacher, I feel students feel that way about me sometimes, that I call them in to my room to show them what linguistic tricks an author is pulling, or even pulling tricks with their words like I’m folding a dollar bill to make it say “state of fear.” Even in his own book Foster seems at times to be stretching too far to read something into the works of renowned authors.

But even he  qualifies these interpretations with the reminder that often the interpretation is up to the reader, and could be right, wrong, or both. He’s not telling us how to read correctly, but how to read with the mind of a professor, looking for both obvious clues and vague hints at subtexts and secrets.

Foster handles each literary technique by chapter, spending multiple pages on, for example, all journeys are quests for self-knowledge (and the goal is never the stated one), all meals are acts of communion (unless ironically not), that rain is an act of cleansing (unless it’s an act of something else), that flight means freedom (or sometimes just travel), and that it’s all about sex (except for sex, which is about power). The purpose of learning all this stuff isn’t to help you understand plot or characterization, but to deepen, to enrich the experience of the novel or poem. Foster does devote entire chapters to exploring whether an author really means what professors think they mean, or whether a symbol really is a symbol and not just a…something. A novel, he says, is “a network of meanings and significations, that permit a nearly limitless range of possible interpretations.” This, of course, crosses into the controversial “epistemological politics” of writing—is the author “alive” or “dead”? Are they saying something indisputable exact, or is the meaning out of their hands? We bring our own history to a reading, just as the author does in their writing.

So while Foster’s book does barely open up what to literary scholars are intense debates about authorship, meaning, and the nature of any and all bodies of texts, he effectively and thoroughly introduces the rest of society to this world of interpreting works of written art. One of his great strengths is his frequent and diverse examples: from Faulkner, Brookner, Auden, Kingsolver, Nabokov, Stoker, Woolf—and even several films and paintings—not to mention a short story by Matherine Mansfield.

I plan to use it in my English Honors classroom in the future. It makes for a challenging but eye-opening assigned reading, as well as a resource for examples of difficult-to-spot symbolic gestures in assigned reading. It’s not about teaching students how to read, exactly, but how we can and do read.

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