originally published on September 15, 2017
Did you know you could be like a professor without having to go to school for 100 years? Well, I mean, you won’t have a PhD, and you can’t technically teach any college classes, but you get to feel smart, and that’s what being a professor is all about, right?
Please note: I mean no disrespect to actual professors… I even know one or two good ones! (ba-dum-tiss!)
how to read literature like a professor
Can I be a nerd for a minute and say how freaking excited I was when I found this book, started reading it, and instantly loved it? I got excited because, truth be told, I’m an obnoxiously picky reader, and I bore easy even when a book is interesting. Pretty ironic for someone who claims to love reading… then again, back in 2017, I was pretty burned out from reading a bunch of things I didn’t like. Nowadays, I feel like my love of reading is slowly replenishing itself.
At the time, however, How To Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster caught my eye and piqued my interest despite my burnout. It was as educational as it was captivating, and the best part is, you don’t have to be an English major to get something out of it–you just have to like books a little.
Each chapter of Foster’s book covers a different concept that is commonly used in “canonical literature” and explains a) why it’s a pattern and b) how to recognize it. Stuff like Biblical imagery, Greek mythology, the significance of setting, how irony trumps everything, on and on. He disclaims that his book is in no way comprehensive, and that the symbols he chose to emphasize are subjective–he felt they were important, but he acknowledges that others won’t agree. This decisive yet self-aware approach makes Foster a compelling narrator.
The ironic thing is, when I mentioned this book to some of my classmates back in 2017, they replied with groans of disdain. Apparently it’s widely used in high schools, most likely in college-esque literature courses. I thought that of all people, my exceedingly more well-read English peers would appreciate the book the most. Maybe it’s because it was forced upon them in an academic setting (which, as previously mentioned, makes one prone to disliking the reading). In any case, I am not ashamed to have enjoyed a book about a topic that we all aspired to master, and that some of us will… but not me. I just wanted to understand books better.
The most defining feature of Foster’s book, in my opinion, is his conversational, yeah-this-is-a-lecture-but-also-a-casual-book-discussion tone. He’s lighthearted, he’s funny, but he’s also insightful and very concise. I never had to reread a page because I didn’t understand what was said. Maybe because I didn’t pay attention, but never because I didn’t understand. Not to say he didn’t cover some complex concepts or that he wrote in an overly simplified tone; he made it accessible, not simplified. And he engaged the reader! He made you apart of the conversation! Like I’m doing right now except better!
Foster seemed to understand that English professors are a special breed; they are, in a sense, professional readers, and not everyone can be expected to aspire to their level of dedication. It makes me feel good in the same way knowing that I don’t have to be a marathon runner to be a runner makes me feel good. But can I learn from the best? Absolutely.
I, and many others I’m sure, tend to think that because we’re not professionals–or geniuses–we can’t tackle literature intelligently. In Foster’s own words, “Get over it.” In fact, my favorite part of the book was his chapter on how authors develop symbols: at the end, he tells us to stop worrying about being inexperienced and to focus on what we do know, because all of us have read/watched/listened to all sorts of stuff, and all of it informs our reading. In that vein, another incredibly insightful thing that he says is to read good writing: that includes TV shows, movies, podcasts, etc.
Most of us think the only literature we can learn from is the classical variety. But as Foster points out, there are no original storylines: the ancient Egyptians even said so. (Mark that: the ancient Egyptians.) That seems counterintuitive, but the idea is, if it was written then, it has probably been rewritten now, and probably in a way that echoes our own time and place in history. So the old, classic stuff, the new, colloquial stuff, it can all be learned from. And perhaps that’s what it means to study literature.
Have you read this book? What did you think? What books about books do you recommend?