The author is an English professor at the University of Michigan and it becomes apparent quite quickly that he is one of those popular professors who is chatty and has lots of students signing up for his introductory courses on literature. The language is friendly and the examples are entertaining as well as informative. If I lived in Flint, I'd take his classes.
There have been many times I've read a book and just *known* the author is trying to impart more than I am taking away from the prose, and I hear about symbolism in literature, yet I have very little success finding it on my own. One time in high school I had a very good English teacher who would point out the symbolism in stories and novels, but he never told us how to do it, as this book does. With chapters on a wide range of topics (journeys, meals, poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible, mythology, fairy tales, weather, geography, violence, politics, sex and illness, among others) and a wide variety of examples, I found myself learning A LOT. Certainly this would not be of much value to a literature graduate student or professor, but for the rest of us this is a great introduction to getting more out of our reading (or viewing, as the author also touches on film, though to a lesser extent).
The book concludes with a test, in which you read a short story and interpret it using the principles put forth by Professor Foster, then interpretations by several students and Foster himself -- delightful and illuminating! Finally, the author gives a suggested reading/viewing list and an index.
Two problems with the book: first, as I mentioned, the style of the author is conversational, but sometimes to the point of being distracting; secondly, the topics covered are quite idiosyncratic, leaving out as many as are included, though the author addresses this. Still, I give the book 5 out of 5 because it was entertaining, accessible and it has improved my understanding and appreciation of subsequent books I've read and even films I've seen.
on March 15, 2003
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
on December 17, 2003
I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. I generally stay away from these types of "how-to" guides, but this caught my eye at the library and I took a chance. Yes, in several places he does greatly reduce and simplify some of the headier, more complex issues in literature, but I think most readers will be prompted to build on his basic information on their own. As I was reading it I realized I would have loved it as an undergrad English major - especially when he was discussing early 20th Century works. This probably wouldn't have helped me in grad school as a student, but it would have helped me break down and better explain some concepts to the first year comp class I taught. I agree with a previous reviewer that the book is very unpretentious and Foster doesn't insert too much dry criticism here. Should be appealing to most beginning lit students and those who do some serious reading for their own enjoyment.
on December 15, 2003
In spite of others' praise, I have to say I don't think highly of the book. It seems rather obvious to point out that stories can't be entirely original and writers will write partly in response to what they have read, and create variations on themes, situations, and subjects -- but is it really enlightening to claim that there is only one story? This idea can only work if you reduce stories to "Somebody lived once. He or she did things and then died" -- which is not, of course, looking at a story on any meaningful level.
Similarly, the discussions of symbolism, etc., seemed shallow to me. All meals are not communions, and claiming that they are will alienate many thinking readers who recognize that. Does the author really think so poorly of his students to oversimplify in this way? It would be far better to talk about the resonances and suggestiveness of meals and eating, and include communion as a symbol in that group of associations. There is a huge difference between "x = y" and "x suggests y." I can very readily believe that he gets disbelieving looks from his students.
I found his cutesy writing to be very annoying -- such as "Guess what?" and "you-know-who" (meaning Shakespeare). Barf.
But worse, does he have a good command of what he's talking about? He says Henry V has his old friend Falstaff hanged, but this does not happen in the play. (Where was a knowledgeable editor? And why didn't those other professors who provided the rave reviews on the back cover & inside front of the book point this out to him? Linda Wagner Martin of UNC says "What a knowledge of modern literature! What good stories!" Another is James Shapiro, who, it seems, has written a book about Shakespeare.)
He claims "benighted" comes from Old English meaning "anyone darker than myself." This is flip and I think he believes that it's witty -- but it's also not even close to the meaning of the word, and therefore isn't particularly funny. The word has nothing to do with a person's color. "Benighted" actually meant "overtaken by darkness" (that is, as a traveler who has not reached his destination by nightfall) -- and, metaphorically by extension, being spiritually in the dark. [The "darker than myself" statement makes me wince to remember an English professor of mine who frequently just made things up as he went along; he apparently valued being entertaining more than he valued being accurate.]
These last points are not critically important, maybe, but they sure undermine his credibility
on October 19, 2011
How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster was an enjoyable book and is an easy read due to the author's lightheartedness. Before reading this book, I often read many books and saw many movies without the full understanding of what the writer was truly trying to say. Take the chapter about water being a way of cleansing. As soon as that idea clicked for me, I suddenly thought of the movie that Hilary Duff is in, A Cinderella Story, when the rain came down after the drought everything seemed to fix itself - Austin and Sam kissed and the mean Step-Mother was officially out of Sam's life. Because of this simple explanation in the book everything made sense now, the rain cleansed Sam of her problems so she was able to make up with Austin and things were right again. This is just one the ways reading this book has opened my eyes to the many different types of symbolism, which has helped me a lot in my understandings of stories.
Another plus for this book would be the interesting discussions that were held in my English class due to the sometimes questionable ideas Thomas C. Foster brought up. The main idea that kept coming up in our discussions would be the idea of no wholly original stories. At first this idea seemed easily answered, but upon further discovery, our class found the answer to be somewhat inconclusive due to opposing reasons. With the talk that Thomas C. Foster had aroused, it had our entire class really thinking, which is hard to do at eight o'clock in the morning.
Even though I found the book to be very insightful, there are some things that could have been better. Seeing as I am only a sophomore in High School, I am not a super experienced reader, and the amount of examples from real life texts that Thomas C. Foster gives us in the story is overwhelming. While the examples from real texts of what Foster was talking about in the chapter were helpful, I could not relate to them seeing as I had not read any of the books he continually talked about. He also gave too many examples, to the point where he was just rambling on and on. Foster even rambled on and on about simple topics that shouldn't have been given so much thought. Foster simply needs to work on being more concise.
Overall, I thought that the book was worth reading. At first glance of the book I thought it was going to be a waste of my time, but it turned out to help me more than I can explain. I have found myself being more involved with stories and actually understanding them, instead of going to my teacher or Spark notes for help. How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster is an informative and very helpful book that I would recommend to any reader.
on October 21, 2011
Thomas C. Foster, author of How To Read Literature Like a Professor, writes 280-plus pages on--what else?--how to read literature "like a professor." Foster teaches his readers about analyzing and breaking down the many layers of literature to its core through the identification of archetypal elements. It is a guidebook for high school and college students to recognize the most basic literary themes in works of literature such as weather, violence, politics, illness, flying, sex, and Jesus. Is the book informative? Yes. Insightful? Slightly.
So he tries to get clever. Foster enunciates the word archetype on a very broad scale, explaining how every work of literature can tie to many others. To be even more vague, he bravely states in the first few chapters of his book: there is only one story. This "one story" concept of Foster's reverberates throughout all works of literature in such an indefinite way that almost every story can have the same archetypal themes. So can Harry Potter symbolize politics? Sex? Jesus? If it's Jesus, then that means Jesus can equal hero, can equal soldier, can equal violence, can equal death, can equal innocence, can equal Little Red Riding Hood, can equal savior, and can equal, once again, Jesus. And it all works...if you think about it in that particular Foster way.
From this point on in Foster's book, he brings a multitude of written works together, collecting bits and pieces of literary themes that might associate with an archetype and then vomits them into chapters. Not only does this book prick its readers here and there about symbolism and pattern in the most general and irritating manner, it also shoves literary examples down their throats. Each chapter consists of numerous paragraphs of analyses from a variety of stories in order to exemplify archetypal themes. His evaluations (which are mostly summaries) and examples consume a good three quarters of his novel, the rest being Foster's scant "how to" part of the book. Enlightening, yes, but is it absolutely necessary? Perhaps he goes through this extraneous book-interpretation process just to get his ten pages into every chapter. It's excessive writing that requires extensive reading. The reader can easily grasp the idea that Foster wants to convey the very first time he says it, there's no need for such vigorous detail. Besides, it's all one story anyway.
A ten-paged instruction manual on how to identify archetypes would have had a more beneficial effect. Dissecting a novel piece by piece in order to identify every can-be archetypal detail will not bring you into any more literary depth than by subconsciously recognizing one. If archetypes are something so universal that a reader can immediately relate to, then what is the point of purchasing a copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor when Foster is only resounding our preexisting knowledge about literature? Am I already reading literature "like a professor?" As a writer and a reader, the information that Foster displays in his book should not be new to us. The basic principles that he stresses are nothing more than logic.
In all fairness, Foster has brought new dishes to my literary table. I can say that some of his teachings have contributed to my reading competency; however, I do not recommend this book to those who truly wish to enhance theirs. If you want to read about archetypes, try Google. An in-depth study from a 280-plus-paged book is nonessential when all that is required to understand archetypes and literature in general is common sense. And if you're interested in that, try Thomas Paine. (It's a political archetype.)
If you're a voracious reader of novels or stories, but not an English Literature Major, and often find yourself thinking "there's more going on in this story, but I can't figure out what" then this book will provide a great starting point for expanding your reading. Foster takes the uninitiated on an easy to follow quest through literary symbology, allusion, and theory. It focuses almost exclusively on reading, not on writing (though one can vastly improve one's writing by becoming a better reader). And the intended audience is the beginner (though someone who has never read a novel might not fare too well).
Foster's ideas may strike some as "out there". He reads stories and symbols on a very mythological level. And this leads to his easy to misunderstand notion of "there's only one story". By this he doesn't mean "there's only one plot" or "all stories are the same story" but something more philosophical such as "all stories belong to and feed off of the one big story" (something ineffably akin to existence and history). Thus stories and symbols take on recognizable meanings over time. They get embedded in culture and interact with other stories. The best examples he discusses involve the Bible ("Christ figures", floods, etc), Shakespeare, Fairy Tales, and Greek Mythology. Stories have the ability to tap into these culturally embedded notions and heighten the meaning of a plot or a character. This only works because "we're all part of the same story" and, subsequently, because "there's only one story". Originality, then, becomes a measure of how well a story taps into this wellspring of meaning and exploits it for purposes of its own meaning.
Foster presents this idea of one story as the source of literary allusion. He gives numerous examples to support this theory with various symbols, including: quests, vampirism, eating, rain and snow, violence, flight, disease, the seasons, and geography. His approach isn't a tyrannical one, either. He doesn't, for instance, say "rain is ALWAYS cleansing!!" Foster accepts the notion that symbols only suggest meaning, they don't dictate it. Symbols have fluidity. Different people may interpret "snow" in different ways (though bad interpretations do exist, as Foster also recognizes). And irony also throws a wrench into the narrative machine.
Other topics that receive mention include politics and sex. Foster points out that many covert political stories exist (in defiance of the "don't put politics into your fiction!" dictum). He uses Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" to eludcidate this. As for sex, Foster finds symbolic literary sex far more satsifying than outright portrayals of intimacy in stories. Why? Because sexual intimacy typically carries symbolic meaning for a story. It carries the plot forward.
Foster's book most of all encourages the questioning of a story. Why is the main character short or tall? Why is the story set in winter rather than spring or summer? Why do references to birds keep appearing in a story? Such questions lead a reader down the path of reading a story in a more broad way. Which should heighten the experience of reading.
The book's final chapter presents a "test case" in the form of Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party". After reading the story (included as a whole), Foster asks the reader to consider some questions and return to the text. He then gives interpretations of some of his students and finally his own reading of the story. For those that have never taken a literature course, this chapter probably provides the most benefit, especially regarding the "tools" introduced in the preceding chapters. Here he puts theory to practice.
In the end, Foster claims that this book doesn't represent the only, or even necessarily the best, way to read and analyze a story. So those who already have a literary background may take issue with his approach. But for the beginner this book presents a possible new dimension for reading, understanding, and judging stories. It should help to dispell the notion that literary teachers and professors just "make it all up." Most of all, it should provide a good launching pad, not a landing pad, for further reading.
on October 19, 2011
How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster is one of the most accessible guides to literature on the market today. With a clear, familiar voice; numerous and well articulated examples and a structure that reads like you're in a lecture hall hearing him explain it to you personally all make it a literary guide that is well worth picking up.
Being the son of an English major, I am familiar with quite a few English professors; and Foster is reminiscent of many of my favorites. His writing is friendly and engaging, drawing in those who may struggle with the typical high-minded, intimidating language used by many professors. Your mileage may vary on how effective this is, of course: it may be off-putting how casual he is, and he does have a tendency to go on tangents. For myself, however, the writing style was deeply engaging.
As all good English professors should be, he is well read, far beyond my level. However, while he often quoted from books and stories I was completely unfamiliar with, he managed to frame it with just enough story summary to make his examples relevant to the chapter, and in fact made the back-of-the-book recommended reading list that much more enticing: hearing these stories praised and connected to so many symbols makes us want to pick up copies for ourselves and see if we can find what he was talking about. Once again, your mileage may vary.
Lastly, his structure. The book reads like a good lecture, which I deeply enjoy. However, he is very idiosyncratic with his choices for topics. He willingly admits that this is a primer, an introduction to some major symbolic groupings, and that the only way to really pick up on symbolic meaning is practice. Furthermore, he has a tendency to slightly contradict himself, saying that "something always means this except when it doesn't." While I do agree with his explanation (he says "'always' and 'never' are not words that apply much to literature because as soon as you establish a rule some wise guy will come along and break it") I think it would have been simpler to merely state that one thing suggest another rather than state something to be total truth and then deny that total truth exists later.
Overall, Foster's book resonated well with me. It reads easy and manages to impart what it intends to impart: a deeper knowledge of the meaning behind literature and how to get the most out of your own readings. I highly recommend it.
There is a well-known scene in the film "Dead Poets Society" where an English professor instructs his students to rip a bland scholarly essay on poetry from their textbooks. This book is the spiritual heir to those ripped out and discarded pages... what makes this all the more depressing is that the author clearly had the opposite intent in mind.
The book is an acceptable introduction to literary themes and symbolic thinking, well-suited to budding writers and English majors; despite the publisher's claims, however, I find it neither "lively" nor "engaging" enough to gain wide appeal outside those circles. Indeed, Professor Foster seems to have written the book precisely for that audience, as he assumes a broad literary knowledge on the part of the reader, but insists on repeatedly hammering home trivial concepts (like submersion in water being symbolic of baptism) that anyone "well-read" enough to follow him should already know. This tone, and the frequent return to themes and topics already covered in great detail - oh, look, another Toni Morrison reference - make reading this book feel like an assigned task. Since there will be no quiz later, I can not recommend the book.
I really wanted to like this book. Professor Foster seems a charming and intelligent fellow, and I would probably enjoy taking his classes. Nonetheless, I find this dry and repetitive contribution to "the ur-story" lacking... the reader that would benefit the most from it would likely enjoy it least. The praise of the book by English professors shows that the converse is also true.
on November 29, 2003
This book is an unpretentious introduction to various aspects of reading literature deeply, and on more than just a superficial level. I used to read stories mainly for the surface events, but since reading this book I am seeing symbolism everywhere in what I read. If you love fiction, it only enhances reading pleasure to see more levels of meaning in a story. The book can also help writers add more depth to their own works.
I also appreciated the down to earth and unpretentious voice Foster uses; he never speaks down to his audience. I only hope he goes on to write a sequel.