How to Read Literature Like a Professor- by Thomas C. Foster

“Humankind cannot bear too much reality.”  T.S. Eliot.

Based on the title alone, I had been wanting to read this book for quite some time.  And the subtitle, “A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines” only further piqued my interest.  Having finished the book, I find the title to be more accurate than the subtitle; this certainly seemed like a guide to how many professors dissect literature, for better or worse.  But as to “lively and entertaining,” while it may be the most lively and entertaining guide of its kind, I’m not sure that’s saying much.

Not that I didn’t enjoy it.  But it wasn’t all frolicking fun.  It felt like work.  Like school.  Thankfully, I liked school.

Foster does make some sweeping generalizations that I am not sure I agree with, the most sweeping and difficult to swallow the contention that “there’s only one story.” p. 27.  As in total.  There is one story, and every story we read or see or hear is some version or part of that same story.  He explains his theory, but I don’t agree.  At least not universally.

Foster also sees symbolism in everything.  Every part of a story means something more than it seems to on the surface.  Weather is never just weather (p. 70), geography is never coincidental (p. 171), nor is season (p. 183).  Almost all stories can be traced back to either the Bible or Shakespeare.  He cites to examples, and I can see how this would sometimes be the case.  But I often felt, while in school, that our professors encouraged us to read more into the stories than was actually there.  This bears out in my own writing experience.  Some of the elements mean something more than they seem, but sometimes a sunny day is just a sunny day.

Foster did offer some other insights I found quite compelling.  Like that any aspiring writer is probably also a hungry and aggressive reader.  p. 92.  And, in discussing the diversification of the canon, how the ability to interpret literature from a fixed point, assuming an identical background of context to draw from, is no longer possible.  See pp. 53-54.  According to Foster, and this makes sense, it used to be the case that any reader, at least in Western civilization, would have the Bible  and a few other standard works to draw from as a point of reference.  Now there is no uniform body of reading we can assume even an intelligent, well-read reader has as her context.  So how do we carry on a discussion or conduct literary criticism?  This is a very real question, particularly where the reading community is actively discussing what “well-read” even means and what the “canon” should be.

Foster also concedes that meaning cannot be invented without the writer. p. 114.  He argues that good writers can draw from and allude to previous works without being unimaginative or derivative.  p. 195.  I can see that, if done well.  He even acknowledges (if somewhat rhetorically) that there is value in the questions: “can we ever be certain that our reading is correct, and if so, how?” pp. 295-296.

When I was in school, I sometimes got frustrated by all the symbolism it often felt the professor was straining to get us to see.  I often wondered if even the writer intended what we were being asked to see, or if he had simply written a story.  I think you can “just” write a story.  True, the way we interpret the world, including writing a story, is influenced by our body of experience, including our previous readings.  I can see the value in looking for symbolism and dissecting multiple layers of meaning.  I was an English major, after all, and am a lawyer.  But sometimes professors go too far.

If anyone else has read or does read this book, I’d be interested in your insights.

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