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How to Read Literature Like a Professor (thoughts)

July 16, 2008

How to Read Literature Like a ProfessorI won How to Read Literature Like A Professor from Andi ages ago. I read it ages ago too, and I wrote the review a few weeks back, where it lived in my drafts folder until I finally noticed it. Whoops! ;) Let me say it straight out: I thought this had some valuable insights, but it wasn’t nearly as good as How Novels Work (click to read my unabashed adulation). That being said, this is a different kind of book: it concentrates on symbolism. And I don’t necessarily go in for symbolism the way Foster does. I mean, he says that everything can be a symbol. At times, it reminded me of one of the English professors at my college, who also taught film studies. His film lectures were notorious for making everything a phallic symbol. The chapters are divided by theme and have cute titles like “Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Communion” followed by “Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampirism.” Actually, the structure of the book was great: the chapters are short and easily digestible, and there’s even a ‘pop quiz’ two-thirds of the way in. Foster reprints Katherine Mansfield’s wonderful story “The Garden Party” and challenges the reader to analyse it. He then includes an analysis one of his students wrote that impressed him; it’s a nice way to engage the reader, and it really worked.

Also, Foster is obviously very intelligent and very passionate about literature. So it was interesting, and informative, to watch him read so much into things like the weather, sex, meals, illness, baptism, and more. One of the major reasons why I never took a lit class in college was that I have no real interest in deconstructing books like that, but Foster almost convinced me otherwise. He did bring a richness to my reading that I didn’t have before, which I appreciate. While I thought this was an interesting book (especially the chapter on mythology), I wouldn’t consider it required reading unless you’re interested in symbolism. In that case, definitely go read this! As always, you can check out my favourite passages below to help you decide.

Favourite Passages (How to Read Literature Like a Professor)
That’s what this figure [the vampire] really comes down to, whether in Elizabethan, Victorian, or more modern incarnations: exploitation in its many forms. Using other people to get what we want. Denying someone else’s right to live in the face of our overwhelming demands.

Whether one believes that the story of Adam and Eve is true, literally or figuratively, matters, but not in this context. Here, 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.

We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters that of the writer, and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to. Imagination isn’t fantasy. That is to say, we can’t simply invent meaning without the writer, or if we can, we ought not to hold her to it. Rather, a reader’s imagination is the act of one creative intelligence engaging another.

I love “political” writing. Writing that engages the realities of its world-that thinks about human problems, including those in the social and political realm, that dresses the rights of persons and the wrongs of those in power-can be not only interesting but hugely compelling.

Things have changed pretty dramatically in terms of equating scars or deformities with moral shortcomings or divine displeasure, but in literature we continue to understand physical imperfection in symbolic terms. It has to do with being different, really. Sameness doesn’t present us with metaphorical possibilities, whereas difference-from the average, the typical, the expected-is always rich with possibility.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2008 9:08 am

    I’m new to your blog,
    and I sure do like it.

  2. July 16, 2008 9:35 am

    Even though I got a MA in Lit, I still suck at symbolism. I’m much better at analyzing a story’s structure and whatnot than symbolism. I have this one staring at me from the front row of my TBR. Maybe it’s time to pick it up and give myself a refresher course. Great review, as always, Eva!

  3. trish permalink
    July 16, 2008 10:48 am

    This reminds me of a story I heard from a teacher. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it makes the point well.

    A woman who’d written some poems that had been published went back to college. In her English class, one of the poems they studied was hers. Their assignment was to write a paper about the poem, what it meant, etc.

    The woman figured that would be easy; she’d written the poem, she should know what it’s about! When she got her paper back from the professor, she noticed a big red C. She went up to talk to him, explaining that she’d written the poem! If anyone knew what the poem was about, it was her! The professor explained that even though she wrote the poem, she was wrong in her deconstruction of the poem.

    Sometimes I wonder if people don’t look too much into things…some writers are THAT great and can put symbolism into their stories…other writers I think don’t do it on purpose, it just get interpreted that way.

    Just my opinion. :D

  4. July 16, 2008 12:46 pm

    Love to hear about books on books. I have yet to read one like that but just reading that passage makes me feel not so smart….and I took some Lit classes in college. So either my brain is turning to mush or I don’t get symbolism. lol

  5. July 16, 2008 2:29 pm

    I find that if a novel is a great book it works on more than one level. It has to be a good read first and formost. You have to be able to get caught up in the story for its own sake. This is true of all good books.

    A great book has enough going on in it that you can read it more than once and find something new, like how it works on a symbolic level that you didn’t notice the first time around or until someone pointed it out to you in a discussion or a review. I love it when my students can tell me something about a book or poem or story that I hadn’t noticed before.

  6. July 16, 2008 6:25 pm

    I’m halfway through this book and need to pick it up again. Your description of it is right on. It is not scholarly but fun and for the layman.

  7. July 16, 2008 9:05 pm

    Sounds interesting–and completely opposite what I’m finding Bloom to say: he says eliminate your search for symbolism and read for yourself. I studied literature in college and so I love the search for symbolism too. I’m going to have to look this one up. Thanks for sharing!

  8. July 17, 2008 5:03 am

    I’ve always hated books and lectures about symbolism in literature. They depress me and make me feel inadequate. I was an English major in college, and I had a few professors that insisted on comments about symbolism. That caused some bad grades. Symbolism in lit is like those paintings you’re suppose to stare at and relax the eyes and see a hidden image. I never see symbolism.

    I’ve been a life-long bookworm and whenever the subject of symbolism comes up it makes me think I’ve been missing out. Actually, no one has ever even convinced me that symbolism exists and it’s not an illusion in the mind of some readers. I mean, are some writers and readers really communicating in a secret language?

    Now I do believe in subconscious communication. I also believe we have other minds other than our conscious mind, brain studies have shown that. So maybe one of my other minds gets the language of symbols. But man, I hate being between two people talking in another language.

  9. July 17, 2008 8:49 am

    This sounds interesting. I always feel like I’m missing something because I’m not really good at picking up on symbolism. I may check this one out, as well as the other book you mention. Thanks for the great review.

  10. July 17, 2008 10:39 am

    Hmmm … I bought this book awhile ago, but haven’t read it yet. After reading your review, I’m afraid I might not like it! I just hate it when people read WAAAAAYYYY too much into stories. It reminds me of an English class I took during my senior year of college. We had been reading short stories, and one girl was SO excited about all the symbolism she’d found in the stories concerning showering/bathing. She had eagerly written her senior thesis on the subject. You can imagine how disappointed she was when we talked to the author on the phone – he (I think it was Andre Dubus) was shocked when she mentioned how often he wrote about bathing/showering. He hadn’t even realized how often he wrote about the subject – he certainly wasn’t purposely using it as a symbolic device.

    Needless to say, I think this book might be dropping to the bottom of my very, very long TBR list.

  11. July 17, 2008 1:46 pm

    I feel at a loss as well when a plethora of symbolism pop up all over the pages, like, say, the current reading, The Master and Margarita. That it was written in a foreign language makes it even more difficult to decipher what the symbolism might be and what it means in cultural context. (Presence of) symbolism could imply that we’re only reading the text on the surface and completely miss out the underlying message.

  12. July 17, 2008 7:33 pm

    I really enjoyed this book, but I agree that it was limited in scope. I picked up the recently released sequel How to Read Novels Like a Professor and will post a review when I’m done. Based on your glowing review, I’ll also need to pick up How Novels Work.

  13. July 21, 2008 11:41 am

    Terry, thanks!

    Andi, lol. In high school, my approach to symbolism was just to make up BS. I still remember doing an essay test on Death Comes For the Archbishop and talking about how the way a Mexican’s house is described, with the cross barely peeking out from piles of stuff, illustrated how religion formed a background for that culture, and even if it wasn’t always front and center they were always aware of it. Oy!

    Trish, lol: that’s a funny story!

    Shannon, don’t feel bad! lol

    C.B., that’s a good point. I love rereading great books, but I tend to see in them applications to modern life instead of symbolism. Unless I’m reading one of ‘those’ authors, like Virginia. :D

    Petunia, it is definitely fun!

    Rebecca, that’s interesting! I still need to get my hands on a copy of Bloom. :D

    Jim, the author actually talks about how the reader might see symbols the writer didn’t intend, and that that’s valid. I only worry abotu symbolism with certain authors.

    Lisa, this one will definitely have you see symbols everywhere! I really enjoyed the baptism chapter, actually.

    Susan, that’s funny about that girl! The author definitely sees symbols everywhere, but he talks about so many different kinds it’s interesting.

    Matt, I agree-when I’m reading certain books, especially if they’re from another culture, I get really curious about what I’m reading!

    Jessica, can’t wait for your review!


  1. How to Read Literature Like a Professor « Jackets & Covers
  2. How to Read Literature Like a Professor « Ardent Reader

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