While many books may be appreciated for their simple plots, these works often include more profound literary allusions. By examining literature through the ultimate professional reader’s eyes—and literary codes—the college professor, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, enables us to uncover those hidden truths. What does it imply for a literary hero to drive down a sand-filled road? When he gives his friend a drink? When an unexpected rainstorm drenches him with water?
Thomas C. Foster gives us a broad overview of literature—a world where a road leads to a quest, a shared meal may signify a communion, and rain, whether cleansing or destructive, is never just a shower—and demonstrates how to make reading more enriching, satisfying, and enjoyable. His topics range from major themes to literary models, narrative devices, and form. New chapters, a new introduction, a new epilogue, and updated teaching strategies that Foster has developed over the previous ten years are all included in this revised version.
The reader learns how to analyze literary works in the manner demanded by English teachers by learning how to seek symbols, themes, and patterns. Authors like James Joyce, Toni Morrison, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, and Katherine Mansfield, whose works are widely read, are used as examples by Foster to illustrate the relevance of various topics like heart disease and highways that is generally accepted.
Foster interacts with us in a casual, off-hand manner that makes all the many literary strategies he is talking about entertaining and enjoyable and gives you the impression that you are not as foolish as you once believed. Here is an excerpt from the chapter “Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It Isn’t)” as an illustration:
“The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don’t know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That’s why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they’re never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.”
Foster, the literature professor we all wish we had, aids us in seeing the importance of memory, symbol, and pattern in moving beyond characters and story. When reading, it might be good to stop and think, “Where have I seen that before?” to help us comprehend what is happening. Shakespeare, the Bible, and Greek mythology are three often used sources that authors either intentionally or unintentionally borrow upon. One of the most important aspects is that “there is only one tale” and that authors use what they have read, a practice called “intertextuality.” Have you ever had the impression that your books are conversing? They could simply be.
The difficulty of understanding symbols includes rain and weather, journeys that are quests, shared meals that somehow represent communion, entering and exiting the water (baptism), all the symbols that allude to sex, and the other things that sex alludes to.
Then there are patterns like the vampire pattern, where an older person kills a younger, innocent person, the hero pattern, where the person next to the hero frequently perishes (like the crew of Star Trek wearing red uniforms); or the pattern of the Christ figure. The irony, of course, reverses the patterns and makes them seem absurd.
Foster takes us through each of them while using various literary examples. His use of these works to highlight different concepts, such as symbolism and irony, caught my attention and made me want to read more. After discussing these concepts, he asks us to put them into action using Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short tale “The Garden Party.”
The book ends with a recommendation to read what we like and a reading list of books he has recommended throughout the text as starting points. What I liked most about his explanation of Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” in the preceding chapter was his encouragement. He argues that the text and our interpretation of it are all that we really have access to. He urges:
“Don’t cede control of your opinions to critics, teachers, famous writers, or know-it-all professors. Listen to them, but read confidently and assertively, and don’t be ashamed or apologetic about your reading. You and I both know you’re capable and intelligent, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Trust the text and trust your instincts. You’ll rarely go far wrong.”
Symbol and metaphor are undoubtedly the most significant literary techniques the book examines. Despite having similar connotations, there is a crucial difference between them. A symbol is anything that, when interpreted in the context of a literary work, has one or more secondary meanings in addition to its literal or main meaning.
On the other hand, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a concept is expressed figuratively or indirectly. For instance, flowers may represent natural beauty, feminine sexuality, regeneration, or all three in given poetry (or perhaps all three!). Conversely, virginity is referred to in the Bible as the “flower of youth.”
Foster emphasizes that in literature, things, pictures, and even actions and events often have symbolic meanings in addition to their literal relevance. Readers’ comprehension of literature will change if they get used to employing symbolic imagination or being aware of symbolic meaning.
The significance of understanding symbols and metaphors serves as the foundation for almost all of the many reading tactics discussed in each unique chapter of the book. Even though they look at quite diverse frameworks for identifying symbols and what these imply, the chapters on quests, dining scenes, vampires, the Bible, seasons, and other topics all deal with symbolic or metaphorical meaning.
Foster, for instance, looks at how specific symbols connect Twilight and Dracula in Chapter 3, establishing a common plane of meaning whereby these two very different novels may explore the same topics (such as sexuality).
Chapters 12 and 25 of Foster’s book especially discuss symbols. Foster emphasizes the advantages of designating objects as symbols with confidence in Chapter 12 and warns readers that symbolic meaning is seldom absolute. He contends that although the answer to the question “Is it a symbol?” is often “yes,” there isn’t always a clear-cut correct or wrong response.
In contrast, Chapter 25 emphasizes the difficulty when writers use “private symbols,” symbols whose value is exclusive to that author or book. Even though these symbols might be challenging to interpret, it is feasible to discern their meaning by following your intuition and drawing on your familiarity with previous literary works.
Foster says that he developed How to Read Literature Like a Professor to deal with a specific issue: the tendency of untrained readers to read literature superficially. This kind of reading is comparable to how one “reads” actual circumstances, such as taking people at their word when they talk or presuming that the development of sickness for a person has no symbolic meaning.
Foster uses instances of this type of literal, surface-level interpretation throughout the book to reassure the reader that he recognizes their opposition to academics’ interpretation methods. He often starts by comparing the deeper reading methods with a simpler interpretation: “Sometimes a meal is simply a meal… However, this is not always the case.
The issue with superficial reading is not that it prevents readers from understanding a piece of literature (although this may be true of more complex, modern texts). Instead, it merely means they will omit essential details that enrich, enlighten, and enhance the content. In contrast to surface-level reading, deep reading involves participation and creative thinking. It invites the reader to work with the author to define the meaning and allows for various interpretations of a text, some of which may be wholly at odds with one another.
Archetypes are recurring characters in myth and other cultural tales that leave an impression on readers’ minds and are subsequently mimicked, altered, and subverted in literary works. For instance, the hero archetype first appeared in ancient mythology and was associated with characteristics like physical attractiveness, bravery, and strength. These days, the hero archetype may be represented by a character in literature with some of these traits but not all.
It might be challenging to recognize archetypes since they can take strange shapes. In modern literature, a hero archetype-fitting figure could be a woman since all heroes in Ancient Greece were men. One of the major abilities outlined in the book, the capacity to recognize patterns, is necessary for finding archetypes. Finding patterns both inside one text and across texts is part of pattern recognition (and is thus closely related to the concept of intertextuality).
Similar to the book’s sections devoted to symbol and metaphor, there is also one devoted to the archetype. This part explains the idea in the context of C.G. Jung’s psychoanalytic studies and how Northrop Frye applied it to literary criticism. The young person on the cusp of maturity, the vampire predator, the hero (and his sad sidekick, the surrogate), and the Christ figure are just a few of the important archetypes that Foster looks at. All of these archetypes are people, but there are different ways they might manifest, such as the quiet suburb, the unhappy family, or the haunting home.
Intertextuality is the relationship between all writings (particularly literary works) throughout history. Foster urges the reader to consider literary works’ ties to certain cultural and theological traditions (such as Greek myth and the Bible), genres (such as vampire stories and fairy tales), and writers rather than seeing them as existing in a vacuum (Shakespeare, the Brothers Grimm). Foster stresses that the connections between literary works are significant in the same way as the connections between literature and reality are significant by referring to these connections as intertextual.
Foster contends that the harmonic blending of “strangeness and familiarity” in a work of literature is how intertextuality develops richness. A literary work tends to seem thin or opaque when read at the surface level without considering other texts as part of it. However, paying attention to intertextuality reveals many more levels of meaning within a particular literary work and may make clear passages of text that are otherwise muddled or ambiguous.
Additionally, keeping an eye out for intertextual connections is beneficial even when the reader cannot precisely identify the material being referred to. However, focusing on intertextuality is crucial because it empowers readers and encourages them to examine texts in comparison, which is essential when analyzing the role of literature in society.
According to Foster, a quest has five elements:
- A quester
- A destination
- A claimed purpose for going there
- Difficulties and tribulations encountered along the way
- A genuine cause for going there
Every quest is instructive, allowing the seeker to understand themselves better.
At 250 words per minute, the typical reader will finish this book in 5 hours and 36 minutes (words per minute).
Returning to the issue of meaningful vs. meaningless violence, Foster claims that mysteries are the only significant literary genre in which violence is “meaningless.”
Literature does represent society—both its virtues and its flaws. To help society see its errors and make reparations, literature serves a corrective role by reflecting the social evils. It also serves as a social projection of virtues or positive qualities for others to follow.
Things that are seldom discussed in regular life are the subjects of literature. Things that don’t make as much sense on their own as what we say when we speak pragmatically. These are often complicated, essentially human experiences.