How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster

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I saw How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster on the “New Nonfiction” shelf at the library. I thought I’d take a glance through it when I got home, but I certainly had no intention of reading it: I have a lot of books either in progress or on my bedside table, waiting to be read. Well, about 15 pages into it, I decided I had to read it. Despite the fact that this is a nonfiction book about how to approach literature from the point of ” what does it mean?”, I was hooked.

The subtitle is “A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines” and I think that is pretty accurate. Foster’s tone is light, amusing, and engaging as he reminds of the various recurring themes in literature. But his point is that such themes are not random guesses by your literature professors; he argues that the subtle messages and subtle references to other works of literature really just makes literature fun.

I studied English in college, but it’s now been five years since I sat in a class and listened to a professor “explain” a novel or play or story. At the time, I loved to have literature “opened up” for me. I spent four years in college figuring out how to do so. Now, it’s been five years since I thought that way. I’ve been reading just for each book’s story, but I know I’ve been missing things. Reading Foster’s book reminded me that no story written is truly original: the underlying themes have all been said before. Reading, though, should be a mini-quest to find the underlying themes and symbols. They’re there, and many aspects of the novel (or play or story) subtly hint to them. Our job, as readers, is to make the connections.

Foster’s book obviously lacks a lot; there is no way that in 300 pages he can cover all the themes that every piece of literature is based on. Some of the aspects of this book that for me were negative could be positives for you. For example, it carries a conversational tone that made it pleasant for a quick read, but such a tone may bother some readers interested in a more scholarly or serious approach to literature. He references both modern literature and classics; I would have preferred more focus on the classics. He focuses pretty exclusively on symbolism and themes; I’d have liked to learn more about other aspects in literature.

But his book covers many essentials. As I read, I wanted to go back and reread Hemingway’s and James Joyce’s stories: when I read them recently, I knew I was missing something, but I didn’t know where to find it! Considering how much I disliked Hemingway’s stories when I read them, it’s saying something that I now want to revisit him. Foster (re-)convinced me that reading literature and finding common themes can be very fun!

Memorable Quotes

Associate freely, brainstorm, take notes. Then you can organize your thoughts, grouping them together under headings, rejecting or accepting different ideas or meanings as they seem to apply. Ask questions of the text: what’s the writer doing with this image, this object, this act … Reading literature is a highly intellectual activity, but it also involves affect and instinct to a large degree. Much of what we think about literature, we feel first. (page 106)

…[H]ere is where I envy you. If you are a professor, you have to deal with some pretty unsavory characters and some questionable works. If you only want to read like [a professor], you can walk away whenever you want to. (page 234)

…[I]n fact literature is chiefly play. If you read novels and plays and stories and poems and you’re not having fun, somebody is doing something wrong. If a novel seems like an ordeal, quit. (page 284)

Compared to HTR&W

Reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor after (or rather, in the midst of) reading Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why also made me wish I wasn’t so quick to adopt Harold Bloom’s book as my guide to reading well. Foster’s book convinces me that there are many “guide books” out there to help me learn to read well, which is my purpose to approaching the How to Read and Why reading list. I intend to pick up some other “how to read” books, for further ideas. (Can I tell you how much I like the LibraryThing recommendations and reviews?)

Harold Bloom’s book has a different purpose than Foster’s: Bloom is sharing what he thinks is great literature and why it is great to him. I really appreciated Bloom’s introduction, preface, and prologue to his book and his emphasis on what he thinks is the purpose of reading. But back in June, some people commented that they had the impression that Bloom is, well, somewhat of an ass. After reading some of his explanations of the literature he so worshipfully recommends, I’d kind of have to agree. That said, I’m still grateful for Bloom’s extensive reading list, and I still intend to finish the short stories, poems, novels, and plays he recommends. I’m just adding to that list.

Foster’s book, on the other hand, shares and dissects the themes and symbols that underscore many of the stories, plays, and novels we come across every day. And recognizing such themes is something I would love to be able to do: it’s just a matter of reading more. Click here for some of the books Foster recommends.

Reviewed on November 12, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I read this book as well as his other book, How to Read Novels Like a Professor. Like you, I was an English major, and to me, both seemed more like a refresher of the basics. I can see, however, how it may help someone who doesn’t have a background in English literature and analysis. It could provide at least a starting point.

    I haven’t read Harold Bloom’s book, but I’m anxious to do so if I can ever get it from my library.

  • I always want to buy books like this one when I’m at the store.  Sometimes I’ll go as far as to pick them up and carry them around, but I never end up buying them.  I think I want to buy them because they tug at my impulse to discuss and analyze literature, taking it apart and making it open up, like you said.  But I think I don’t buy them because I don’t really like having someone else just tell me what the themes are without feeling like I can talk back to them and we can have a conversation about it. 

    I’ve really been missing my English classes lately, can you tell?

  • Jill, It was a refresher I needed! I missed a lot in Joyce. I need such reminders!

    Louise, I’m glad you like the post!

    Kim, Foster has a conversational tone; in fact, he has italicized comments that are supposedly “You” asking him questions. Some might be turned off by that, but it make it feel somewhat like a conversation. Yes, it’s not a substitute for a real English class, but it’s what we have!

  • What a coincidence! I just picked up a copy of this at Half Price Books Friday. I studied English lit in college too but I’ve heard this book was fun so thought I’d give it a go. Your review is encouraging!

  • SmallWorld Reads, I had it very low down on my TBR list, but it was on display, so I started thumbing through it….oops. This is why my TBR is out of control!

    Stefanie, I think it’s good for English major types, although it probably should mostly be review. I guess I didn’t read enough in college, because there is a great list of works to read! I’m also out of practice, so it was fun. I hope you enjoy it!

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