How to Read Literature Like a Professor (thoughts)
I 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.