How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster is a great book for mentoring because after you have read it, you will never read the same way again. It teaches you how to question things. It was the most impactful book for me in 2011!
“Reading is an activity of the imagination, and the imagination in question is not the writer’s alone…In this activity of reading and understanding literature, we’re chiefly concerned with how that story functions as material for literary creators, the way in which it can inform a story or poem, and how it is perceived by the reader.”
I thought that I would find How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster quite boring and academic but I quite enjoyed it. For people who haven’t studied literature in college – and that includes me – after you read How to Read Literature Like a Professor, you will never view literary fiction the same way.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a solid guide which increases your understanding of literary fiction. I found the ideas and numerous examples quite helpful. To truly understand literary fiction, especially the well-written ones, first you have to know something about the author and you have to ask a lot of questions. You have to constantly ask, “What does this mean, what’s its significance in the story?”
When you dig beneath the surface of the story, a whole new world opens up to you and you have a richer experience. Most of us in the western world are very familiar with the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill.
“Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up got Jack, and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
He went to bed and bound his head
With vinegar and brown paper.”
I remember learning that poem in primary school, but I do not remember any deeper meaning to it. Here is some of Foster’s analysis:
“Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the reason so that Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after? That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?…First think what’s down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowd, fog darkness….High: snow ice, purity….”
Who would have thought that one nursery rhyme could be so loaded with hidden meaning?
How to Read Literature Like a Professor has chapters titles such as:
- Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)
- Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Communion
- Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Vampire
- Now, Where Have I Seen This Before?
- When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare
- ….Or the Bible
- Hanseldee and Greteldum
- It’s More Than Just Rain or Snow
- Does He Mean That?
- Is That a Symbol?
- If She Comes up, It’s Baptism,
- Geography Matters
- …So Does Season
- He’s Blind for a Reason
- Don’t Read With Your Eyes
The film Oh Brother Where Art Thou has parallels to the wandering of King Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. The three convicts in the film are trying to get home and so is Odysseus after fighting in the Trojan War. The recognition of that parallel suddenly changes the reader’s experience. I would not have seen it had Foster not pointed it out.
Flying means freedom, so that means that it could be freedom from the things that tie us down. Rain often has a cleansing effect. And, writers take great pains in naming characters in their work, so there is great meaning in the names. If the character’s name is Daisy, Daisy is a spring flower, so what does the season spring means in literature? You constantly have to drill down to get clues. If people are eating a meal together, what does that mean? Eating is a shared experience, so what are the characters sharing, what are they going through together?
7 Great Ideas Worth Exploring
- The reason for a quest in a story is self knowledge.
- There is no such thing as a wholly original story work of literature.
- There is only one story – stories grow out of other stories, poems out of other poems, plays out of other plays, and they also cross genres.
- Myth is a body of story that matters.
- Flight is freedom.
- When writers send characters south, it’s so they can run amok.
- Don’t read with your eyes.
Questions to Ask While Reading Literary Fiction
- Where have I seen this situation before?
- Where did that effect come from?
- Whom does this character resemble?
- Is this a metaphor? Is it an analogy?
You have to question everything. How to Read Literature Like a Professor was very illuminating for me and I now see some of the books that I had already read in a new light. While reading the book, I reminded how I felt reading Og Mandino’s books, The Greatest Salesman in The World and The Greatest Salesman Part II. It was the classic case of where have I seen that before. In the first book, I recognized Mother Mary and Baby Jesus and in part two I recognized Paul on the road to Damascus. I recognized the stories because of my religious upbringing. So even though Mandino did not use names in the story, I recognized who the characters were because I had seen that type of story before.
If you read a lot of mythology, you will recognize the gods, goddesses and other mythical characters in stories that have parallels. How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster is a book that I will constantly refer to as I read the classics this summer. I cannot really do justice to the book because you have to read it for yourself -, there is simply too much information packed inside.
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