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A Practical and Amusing Guide to Literature,
This review is from: How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (Paperback)
One thing's for certain: after finishing HOW TO READ LITERATURE LIKE A PROFESSOR, you will either praise the author for opening your eyes to the pleasures of literary analysis, or curse him for making you think too much. That's because Thomas C. Foster, a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Flint, gives his readers a lot to consider.
The short answer one comes away with is that nothing is as it appears to be. Symbolism is key. Weather, for example, is not just weather. Rain can be cleansing, cold is harsh but clean, wet is earthy and animal.
In case the reader doesn't quite get what Foster is saying, he succinctly states his meaning in a single, boldface sentence. "Myth is a body of the story that matters" reads one. "The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge" is another.
My favorite is, "There's no such thing as a wholly original work of literature," a theme that is repeated on several occasions. According to Foster, everything any author has ever read influences what he writes. Using the western film as an example, he suggests, "What's it about? A big showdown? High Noon. A gunslinger who retires? Shane. A lonely outpost during an uprising? Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - the woods are full of them . . ." Not that he blames writers for lack of originality: "You can't avoid [repetition], since even avoidance is a form of interaction. It's simply impossible to write . . . in a vacuum."
As previously mentioned, some chapters get slightly repetitive. "It's More Than Just Rain or Snow" has many features similar to "...And So Does Season," while "One Story" mirrors many aspects of "Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before." That's okay, though; some things bear repeating.
There's also a great deal of religious symbolism in literature. "Whenever people eat or drink together, it's Communion," Foster declares (again ensuring the reader gets the point). There are also plenty of male and female "Christ figures" and chapters like "If She Comes Up, Its Baptism" (i.e., emerging from the water equals rebirth).
"Don't Read With Your Eyes," a telling chapter in an age where certain people still seek to ban books, reminds us that present sensibilities might not always apply to the realities in which the story was written. Just look at all the uproar over THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN because some consider it politically incorrect. In Mark Twain's time, however, that was how people lived, spoke and felt.
With the first novel I tackled after HOW TO READ LITERATURE LIKE A PROFESSOR, I found myself looking under the rug and in the corners for meanings that may or may not exist. As the saying goes, "Sometimes a cigar is just a smoke." One of the problems college students encounter is the spiel their professors weave. "A moment occurs in this exchange between professor and student when each of us adopts a look," Foster explains. "My look says, 'What, you don't get it?' Theirs says, 'We don't get it. And we think you're making it up.'" But the author maintains that writers do consciously render these symbols when plying their craft. "Memory. Symbol. Pattern. These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd," he offers. Just how can us regular-Joe readers recognize all these possibilities? "Same way you get to Carnegie Hall," Foster cracks. "Practice."
--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 17, 2007 5:28:59 PM PST
Yvette M. says:
Superbly done!! Thank you.
Posted on Jul 25, 2009 9:58:05 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 25, 2009 9:59:08 AM PDT
Mark Twain says:
Don't buy the hype. You don't need to be a professor to read literature, enjoy literature, or write literature. The most important meaning of a novel, for example, isn't the clever way an author uses symbols to tell some subsurface story, though the professor would like you to believe that. The most important meaning is in the story itself. The important symbols of a story are accessible and are presented to you by the text, whether it be a poem or a novel. There is nothing more any professor can do to destroy love for literature than to have you chase down obscure allusions and symbols that you think are there.
In reply to an earlier post on Apr 19, 2010 5:17:08 AM PDT
a customer says:
Spoken like a true obscurant! That C- in American Lit still rankles, hmmm?
Posted on Jul 17, 2013 2:43:13 PM PDT
Ron Kaplan - Your feedback was very clear and interesting. Thanks for doing such a good job!
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