Sunday, October 17, 2010

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

Summary: A "guide to reading between the lines," or understanding and thinking about literature beyond a literal level.

Musings: As an English teacher, I struggle between the roles of expert and learner in the classroom.  My students often expect and want me to know everything about the books I teach, and I obviously want to appear knowledgeable in the classroom.  However, I also want to show that literature is up to interpretation, and that, as a reader, my thoughts are constantly being challenged and refined.  I was interested in reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor because I hoped it would help me think about my personal reading and the books I teach more critically while also providing accessible language to discuss those aspects with my students.

I found that the book largely failed me in those regards, not because it's a bad book necessarily, but because I really wasn't the right audience.  In choosing the book, I think I underestimated myself.  I'm no scholar of literature, but I am an English major with a masters degree in education; I've been teaching English to 9th graders for four years, and I read regularly and (I hope) thoughtfully.  Therefore, the main points of Foster's book (lots of things reference the Bible and Shakespeare; symbolism's everywhere; quests are a recurring motif) were in no way new to me.  In fact, many of the ideas I teach in my classroom.  How to Read Literature Like a Professor would probably be better suited to high school students (or even adults) learning to move beyond plot summary and into critical literary analysis for the first time.

Foster keeps a light and conversational tone that would be appealing to readers looking for something accessible.  His points are clear and concise, and he provides many examples for each of his arguments (though because he particularly studies D.H. Lawrence, Toni Morrison, and James Joyce, way too many examples come from these authors).  I did at times find Foster's stylistic mannerisms grating, as he adopts the tone of a patient and knowledgeable professor schooling and shocking a disbelieving audience.  Many parts of the book went something like this: "Here's my pithy statement about literature.  Oh, you don't believe me?  How about when this character does this.  Sound familiar?  Oh, just it's a little book called Major Important Work of Literature."  Towards the end I was skimming parts of the chapters.

Although Foster's arguments are probably common knowledge to anyone who has studied literature, what I liked most about the book was when he addresses the question of "so what?".  So an author alludes to Shakespeare--why does that matter and how does it impact my reading?  I struggle explaining this in the classroom at times (for example, with Simon as a Christ figure in Lord of the Flies or the light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet), so I appreciated those parts of the book.

Foster also addresses the question asked every year by the obnoxious kid in the class: did the author really mean all this or are you just making up stuff that isn't really there?  As Foster points out, it takes most readers a minute or two to read a page of literature, and maybe the same amount of time to think about it.  It takes an author significantly longer to write it, and the author's certainly been thinking about it a lot longer than any reader has.  So if the reader can pick up some point of meaning with his unavoidably shallow study in comparison, how likely is it the author did it unintentionally?

People accustomed to only thinking about plot and characterization could certainly use this book as a guide to understanding new aspects of literature, but there's not a lot of helpful information for those who already feel somewhat comfortable in that arena.

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