A reader’s imagination is the act of one creative intelligence engaging another.
With How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster does a commendable job of introducing “surface readers” to a more fruitful type of reading. Foster is, surprise(!), an English professor and decades of student interaction inspired him to write this book.
What’s that? You have an MFA in English Literature, so you don’t need to read it? You’re right. There’s nothing new for you here. Foster’s book is for the amateurs or layfolk who want to dig deeper, because as they read, a hint of something beyond the superficial catches their eye. They sense a recurring pattern or theme that pops up in an otherwise straightforward story. Why do those birds keep appearing at the oddest moments? All that rain sure seems miserable, but it’s just weather, right?
Foster’s goal is to teach readers the “language of reading.” Like any language, some signs and terms can be ambiguous, but because of centuries of intertextuality, there is a commonly accepted grammar. He also points out that readers shouldn’t try to create meaning where none exists; that’s writing. As a reader, one has to come to terms with the writer and engage him or her in equal conversation. It’s important not to bring preconceived notions to a literary work. To fully understand a novel, readers need to place themselves in the context of the author’s time and surrounding culture.
Foster’s book contains gobs of categorical examples, though presented somewhat arbitrarily. He does include a short story at the end for practice. Readers can compare their interpretation with those of Foster’s students, as well as the professor’s own view.
All this isn’t to say reading deeply beyond the surface is required to enjoy a story, but it’s one way to get more enjoyment. Readers can also use it as a guidebook for what they should know before reading more deeply. There’s likely a nod to the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, fairy tales, or some combination of the above in most of the western novels we read. Again, intertextuality at work.
Foster’s writing is warm, making How to Read Literature Like a Professor a pleasure to read. Obviously, the less practiced you are at recognizing the undercurrents, the more you’ll get out of this book. But even if you count yourself among the literary astute, it’s worth reading if only to reconfirm your own interpretations of the symbols and patterns weaved into good writing.
Fun links to learn more:
- My highly informal, yet somehow highly formal, book notes.
- The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield – this short story is used as the test case at the end of the book.