Friday, June 1, 2012

Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor


I wish I had read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor months ago, when I first began reading literary fiction in earnest.  I’ve had to make the disclaimer several times on this blog and in my comments elsewhere that I have no collegiate-level training and that my analyses of literary works is based largely on the interpretive skills I’ve learned as a music historian.  This book has made me feel much more confident about literature, largely because it points out a few of the many symbolic associations to look for.  It’s not perfect.  Foster is careful to point out that his book is an incomplete survey and based on his own (obviously limited) experience as an English professor.  Furthermore, it soon becomes clear which authors and books he is most familiar with; many of the same examples are used throughout, so if you’re unfamiliar with, say, D.H. Lawrence, you might not find the examples very enlightening.  He also tries to write so casually that on occasion, it becomes difficult to follow what he’s saying.  By and large, however, this is a very easy and informative read.  I read the first hundred pages or so while on the elliptical, and let me tell you, it takes a very interesting and low-brainpower book to occupy me during my workouts!

What How to Read Literature Like a Professor does is encourage readers of literature to ask questions beyond the basics of plot and characterization.  The back-cover synopsis writes, “What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey?  Shares a meal?  Gets drenched in a sudden rain shower?  Often, there is much more going on in a novel than is readily visible on the surface…”  Foster answers all these questions and more, and what I admired most was his ability to come right out and say that many of these questions have multiple, often-conflicting answers.  And once you add irony to the mix, the possible interpretations get even more complex.  Take rain, for example.  Rain can be cleansing, life-giving, a reference to spring and rebirth, fresh starts, rainbows, and promises.  Or it can be stormy, muddy, miserable, mysterious, the ruination of the pristine condition, or the cause of a cold.  Or none of the above.  What Foster wants his readers to learn to do is question the use of rain in a novel, to ponder why an author chose to incorporate rain when and where he/she did, and what this means for the characters and for the narrative as a whole.

Foster discusses quests, shared meals, geography, seasons, flight, violence, illnesses, and sexual metaphors.  He talks about allusions to Shakespeare, Christian Scripture, and mythologies of every sort, especially the Greek and Roman mythologies ingrained in Western consciousness.  Symbols, irony, and historical contexts are all introduced as necessary considerations when reading a piece of literature.  And he even includes a short story by Katherine Mansfield for readers to try their hand at analyzing themselves before reading several different possible interpretations.  Anyone who has taken a good English class may not need How to Read Literature Like a Professor, but if you haven’t or are looking for a refresher course, I’d recommend you check it out.  It will teach you to look beyond your own immediate personal reactions and dig into much deeper analyses of meaning.

Things I’m reading:
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Musicology and Difference, Ruth Solie, ed.
A Journal of Theomusicology (Black Sacred Music, Vol. 8, No. 1), Jon Michael Spencer, ed.

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