How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Thomas C. Foster
…the professor, as the slightly more experienced reader, has acquired over the years the use of a certain ‘language of reading,’ something to which the students are only beginning to be introduced. What I’m talking about is a grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules, that we learn to employ in dealing with a piece of writing. Every language has a grammar, a set of fules that govern usage and meaning, and literary language is no different. It’s all more or less arbitrary, of course, just like language itself.” (Introduction, “How’d He Do That?”)
Ok, I confess: I’ve been finished with How to Read Literature Like a Professor for nearly three weeks, and I’ve simply been too lazy to post anything. Pure, blatant laziness. Hey, it’s summer, right? (Or close enough…) Of course, this may also be partially a reflection of my feelings of antipathy towards the book: the manner in which Foster reads literature just simply isn’t the manner I prefer to read.
I don’t mean that I’m afraid that all the joy of reading will be taken away if I start to focus on symbolism and “whenever you see X you know it means Y” sorts of things (which are the predominant focus of the book), just that I’d rather focus on different things—the story (a very guilty reading for the plot reader), the themes, the how and why, perhaps some of the more writerly aspects. I suppose I was hoping for a book that would tell me more about these, although to be fair, looking at the symbolism can illuminate these things. I think this is why I ended up in some of the “arguments” I had with the book—we had different ends in mind.
It started in the first chapter “Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not).” I have no problem with that specific statement. Huckleberry Finn—quest. Lord of the Rings—quest. No, my problem is why does this matter? Foster indicates that the real goal of any quest—not the stated one—is the protagonist’s self-knowledge. Here’s my problem—I understand self-knowledge to be a characteristic of character growth, and character growth to be one of those things that a good reader should be looking for anyway—whether they’re reading “like a professor” or not. I just don’t get the point of needing to define a quest with all its attendant parts. Maybe my problem here is that this seems much too obvious to me, too easy—it may not be so clear-cut for a less practiced reader.
It seems that my issues with the direction of this book are that I’m looking for big picture while a lot of the focus is on tiny parts. I’m wondering –I have no background in literary analysis, so this merely speculation—is this one of those areas where there are different perspectives on the understanding of books and Foster is representing one school of thought? I.e., I’ve heard of approaching books from a feminist lens or a deconstructivist lens; is this just another lens in which literature can be approached?
Now, while it can be terrible fun to have a good book-argument (especially since the book has a hard time arguing back, especially if you close your eyes and don’t read it), I don’t want to give the bad impression that the entirety of my reading session with How to Read Literature was a long drawn-out argument. There is one major point I’m taking away from How to Read Literature Like a Professor that I think is really the key to reading just about anything in depth: know your sources. That’s not how Foster words it, he divides this into separate chapters: “When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare…,” “…Or the Bible,” “Hanseldee and Greteldum,” and “It’s Greek to Me,” as well as within others. The point: much of Western literature (all?) has in it references to literature of the past, the big ones being Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales, and Greek myth. This is one of those concepts that I think just about every reader picks up on at some point, consciously or not. What I hadn’t thought about before was the manner in which these references can add depth to/inform the story at hand. Nor had I considered that (duh) there must be similar “essential texts” in other cultures:
Still, no matter what your religious beliefs, to get the most out of your reading of European and American literatures, knowing something about the Old and New Testaments is essential. Similarly, if you undertake to read literature from an Islamic or a Buddhist or a Hindu culture, you’re going to need knowledge of other religious traditions. Culture is so influenced by its dominant religious systems that whether a writer adheres to the beliefs or not, the values and principles of those religions will inevitably inform the literary work.” (Chapter 14, “Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too”)
At some point in time, I would like to read more literature from outside my western-dominated comfort zone. Some of the classics of Japanese and Chinese literature really sound interesting, and I would really like to read some more African authors (to date, I’ve only read Things Fall Apart, which I think is the default African book for American readers). I just never considered that to fully appreciate such works might require additional work on my part to learn more about the culture and context they come from. It’s one of those things that is really obvious once it’s stated, but not something I’m used to doing. I may not live in the same era/country as the western authors I read, but I’ve had enough history to know something of their times and the references they make are more likely ones that I have a familiarity with.
I don’t have time right now to really dig into a reading project (which of course means that all I seem to want to do is read), but after reading Foster’s book I would love to spend some time with all those classic reference points. Probably most especially the Greeks—Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes—but also more Shakespeare (I’ve forgotten most of what I have read of his), and maybe even a quick survey through the Bible. I’ve read the entire Bible once before and good chunks of it multiple times, but there is so much in it that there are entire stories I don’t remember (usually the really odd ones). And then, maybe I’d feel qualified to start reading novels again! Not that I’d let this stop me from reading novels in the meantime of course. I’m neither that disciplined nor that actually concerned about it!