How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Foster comes across for the most part of the book as Captain Obvious, or rather Prof. Obvious and maybe even as Dr. Condescending, M.A., Ph.D., etc.
But no matter how frustrated with the book I was at times, Foster does have a language that reminded me constantly of all my english professors and since I have always loved my literature classes and the teachers, it was easier to swallow.
The book treats only very obvious and surface level things like ‘if he almost drown then he is symbolically reborn’ etc. He takes us through a variety of such things ‘hidden’ in literature that we should be on the lookout for to truly enjoy any reading. The only problem is that he never goes deep enough to let help a reader think analytically of what can be considered challenging literature.
But sometime obvious things are worth restating too and sometimes they help us develop a pattern of thinking that will eventually evolve by itself into what is really required. And that in the end might be the real goal of the book. In that case Foster can consider it a reasonable success.
So here is a quick list of easy things to watch out for when you read literature:
1) Every time a character in the book takes any journey/trip of any sort, start looking for tropes like gatekeepers, dragons, treasures etc. Chances are high that it is a mythic Quest of some sort.
2) If you come across a scene involving the characters eating together, especially if a whole chapter is dedicated to it, chances are that it is being used to explore their relations and it is an act of Communion with all that the word implies.
3) Vampires exist, even when they don’t. If it is not Twilight, chances are that it has literary significance. And if it does, the vampire figure is probably being used to hide a lot of sexual and societal undertones about chastity and selfishness. And even when a book has nothing to do with vampires, it would serve you well to identify vampires who suck others blood to survive.
4) Sonnet is the most used type of poetry? _ Frankly i am not sure why this chapter came in and how it helps the readers in anyway except to recognize when they meet a sonnet – they look square.
5) You will meet historical figures like Napoleon, Caesar and Gandhi in many guises even when the situation does not seem to indicate it. If you do recognize this hidden historical aspect of the character, then the story will acquire a new dimension
6) References and quotations from Shakespeare and Bible, including situations and entire plots abound in literature. (Duh)
7) Fairy tales form an important part of literature too and you might want to have a look-out for Hansel and Gretel‘s witch anytime people get lost in unfamiliar territory.
8) Greek symbolism and myths crop up everywhere and be ready for your author being a Homer in disguise trying to tell a modern version. And most of western literature taps this well-spring
9) Weather is always symbolic and Rain, spring etc has deep rooted meaning which authors exploit consistently. If it is raining and thin look gloomy, that might be irony or they might have hear dof London (Foster doesn’t seem to have).
10) When violence is used in a text, it is probably a plot device. So start thinking about why did he have to hit him with a baseball bat and not with a table lamp and why the character had to climb that mountain to die.
11) Almost everything that is repeated can be symbolic, even events and actions. There is no way to list them out so get in the habit of being paranoid.
12) Politics of the day inevitably seeps into any work and knowing that helps in understanding any prejudices which might not be acceptable today and also in understanding the real motivations. Who can read and understand Hemingway without knowing of his history?
13) Christ figures are everywhere and anytime anyone is even slightly noble be on the lookout for christ archetypes like disciples and sacrifice and betrayal.
14) If anyone flies or falls for too long, Icarus and his imaginary cousins are probably being invoked.
15) Lot of things can stand for sex and it is important to understand the meaning of tall buildings. If they write about sex when they mean strictly sex, we have another word for that – pornography.
16) If anyone gets wet in a book, they might change their life after that. They might be baptized into another life in short
17) Geography is probably the most important part of any novel. Geography and Season – think about why the author used that setting and the motifs of the novel will become clearer.
18) There is only One Story – whatever that means.
19) If any character has a scar (lightening?), it usually is a means to set him/her apart and the nature of the scar is symbolic. It could be scar/defect or ever a mild skin coloration – but it is a device to set up for greater things.
20) If a character is blind, ask what he is blind to or what others are blind to. It certainly is not just about physical sight.
21) Whenever any sort of illness comes in, it is usually a metaphor – especially if it is heart disease, TB (consumption), AIDS, Cancer or mysterious in some way. In literature disease is never caused by microscopic mundane things – it is caused by society and character.
22) Read any work from the time frame in which it was written.
23) Irony trumps everything else. If the author defeats your expectation with any symbol, he is so ironing you. This can work at many levels of course, he might defeat your expectation of being subject to irony by suing the actual meaning and so on.
So. Long list? Not if you read a lot. You can see all this in three days of light reading. In fact I am tending to be lenient in this review mostly due to that wonderful last chapter where he gives an example short story and analyses it. That one chapter makes the whole book worth reading. The reading list at the end is also useful and I have reproduced it here.
But getting back to the means of analyses listed above.
Were they too obvious? Or are you not confident that you will start spotting them from tomorrow? Either way, it might help us get into the habit as I said earlier and that is what really matters.
The only way to catch on to all these devices and symbols is to be familiar with them. And the only way to do that? Read of course. Read a hell lot.
So you can see that you need to have read a lot. I mean a lot. And be very conversant with all the tropes and history of literature and myth to fully enjoy or critique serious works – that is, you need to have had a life dedicated to reading to enjoy reading.
In other words, to read literature like a professor you need to be a professor of literature. Bingo. Insight
PS. Of course the iterative growth in the pleasure of reading is known to every bookworm – we are addicted to books as it keeps getting better with every new book we read – the connections, the intertextuality and the by-lanes all become clearer and more and more FUN.
PPS. Susan Sontag makes another arbitrary appearance, haunting my reading list.
View all my reviews