How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (Revised Edition)

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (Revised Edition)

by Thomas C. Foster

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Overview

A thoroughly revised and updated edition of Thomas C. Foster’s classic guide—a lively and entertaining introduction to literature and literary basics, including symbols, themes and contexts, that shows you how to make your everyday reading experience more rewarding and enjoyable.

While many books can be enjoyed for their basic stories, there are often deeper literary meanings interwoven in these texts. How to Read Literature Like a Professor helps us to discover those hidden truths by looking at literature with the eyes—and the literary codes-of the ultimate professional reader, the college professor.

What does it mean when a literary hero is traveling along a dusty road? When he hands a drink to his companion? When he’s drenched in a sudden rain shower?

Ranging from major themes to literary models, narrative devices and form, Thomas C. Foster provides us with a broad overview of literature—a world where a road leads to a quest, a shared meal may signify a communion, and rain, whether cleansing or destructive, is never just a shower-and shows us how to make our reading experience more enriching, satisfying, and fun.

This revised edition includes new chapters, a new preface and epilogue, and incorporates updated teaching points that Foster has developed over the past decade.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062301673
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Edition description: Revised
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 260
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Lexile: 1150L (what's this?)

About the Author

Thomas C. Foster is a professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint, where he teaches contemporary fiction, drama, and poetry as well as creative writing and composition. He is the author of Twenty-five Books That Shaped America and several books on twentieth-century British and Irish fiction and poetry. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor
A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines

Chapter One

Every Trip Is a Quest

(Except When It's Not)

Okay, so here's the deal: let's say, purely hypothetically, you're reading a book about an average sixteen-year-old kid in the summer of 1968. The kid—let's call him Kip—who hopes his acne clears up before he gets drafted, is on his way to the A&P. His bike is a one-speed with a coaster brake and therefore deeply humiliating, and riding it to run an errand for his mother makes it even worse. Along the way he has a couple of disturbing experiences, including a minorly unpleasant encounter with a German shepherd, topped off in the supermarket parking lot where he sees the girl of his dreams, Karen, laughing and horsing around in Tony Vauxhall's brand-new Barracuda. Now Kip hates Tony already because he has a name like Vauxhall and not like Smith, which Kip thinks is pretty lame as a name to follow Kip, and because the 'Cuda is bright green and goes approximately the speed of light, and also because Tony has never had to work a day in his life. So Karen, who is laughing and having a great time, turns and sees Kip, who has recently asked her out, and she keeps laughing. (She could stop laughing and it wouldn't matter to us, since we're considering this structurally. In the story we're inventing here, though, she keeps laughing.) Kip goes on into the store to buy the loaf of Wonder Bread that his mother told him to pick up, and as he reaches for the bread, he decides right then and there to lie about his age to the Marine recruiter even though it meansgoing to Vietnam, because nothing will ever happen for him in this one-horse burg where the only thing that matters is how much money your old man has. Either that or Kip has a vision of St. Abillard (any saint will do, but our imaginary author picked a comparatively obscure one), whose face appears on one of the red, yellow, or blue balloons. For our purposes, the nature of the decision doesn't matter any more than whether Karen keeps laughing or which color balloon manifests the saint. What just happened here?

If you were an English professor, and not even a particularly weird English professor, you'd know that you'd just watched a knight have a not very suitable encounter with his nemesis. In other words, a quest just happened.

But it just looked like a trip to the store for some white bread. True. But consider the quest. Of what does it consist? A knight, a dangerous road, a Holy Grail (whatever one of those may be), at least one dragon, one evil knight, one princess. Sound about right? That's a list I can live with: a knight (named Kip), a dangerous road (nasty German shepherds), a Holy Grail (one form of which is a loaf of Wonder Bread), at least one dragon (trust me, a '68 'Cuda could definitely breathe fire), one evil knight (Tony), one princess (who can either keep laughing or stop). Seems like a bit of a stretch.

On the surface, sure. But let's think structurally. The quest consists of five things: (a) a quester, (b) a place to go, (c) a stated reason to go there, (d) challenges and trials en route, and (e) a real reason to go there. Item (a) is easy; a quester is just a person who goes on a quest, whether or not he knows it's a quest. In fact, usually he doesn't know. Items (b) and (c) should be considered together: someone tells our protagonist, our hero, who need not look very heroic, to go somewhere and do something. Go in search of the Holy Grail. Go to the store for bread. Go to Vegas and whack a guy. Tasks of varying nobility, to be sure, but structurally all the same. Go there, do that. Note that I said the stated reason for the quest. That's because of item (e).

The real reason for a quest never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not, the quester fails at the stated task. So why do they go and why do we care? They go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mis-sion. We know, however, that their quest is educational. They don't know enough about the only subject that really matters: themselves. The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That's why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they're never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.

Let's look at a real example. When I teach the late-twentieth-century novel, I always begin with the greatest quest novel of the last century: Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 (1965). Beginning readers can find the novel mystifying, irritating, and highly peculiar. True enough, there is a good bit of cartoonish strangeness in the novel, which can mask the basic quest structure. On the other hand, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (late fourteenth century) and Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queen (1596), two of the great quest narratives from early English literature, also have what modern readers must consider cartoonish elements. It's really only a matter of whether we're talking Classics Illustrated or Zap Comics. So here's the setup in The Crying of Lot 49:

1) Our quester: a young woman, not very happy in her marriage or her life, not too old to learn, not too assertive where men are concerned.

2) A place to go: in order to carry out her duties, she must drive to Southern California from her home near San Francisco. Eventually she will travel back and forth between the two, and between her past (a husband with a disintegrating personality and a fondness for LSD, an insane ex-Nazi psychotherapist) and her future (highly unclear).

How to Read Literature Like a Professor
A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines
. Copyright © by Thomas Foster. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Introduction: How'd He Do That? xxvii

1 Every Trip Is a Quest (Except When It's Not) 1

2 Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion 9

3 Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires 20

4 Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before? 31

5 When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare … 44

6 … Or the Bible 58

7 Hanseldee and Greteldum 72

8 It's Greek to Me 82

9 It's More Than Just Rain or Snow 97

10 Never Stand Next to the Hero 107

Interlude: Does He Mean That? 127

11 More Than It's Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence 133

12 Is That a Symbol? 148

13 It's All Political 163

14 Yes, She's a Christ Figure, Too 176

15 Flights of Fancy 189

16 It's All About Sex… 203

17 … Except Sex 214

18 If She Comes Up, It's Baptism 227

19 Geography Matters… 242

20 … So Does Season 259

Interlude One Story 273

21 Marked for Greatness 285

22 He's Blind for a Reason, You Know 297

23 It's Never Just Heart Disease … And Rarely Just Illness 305

24 Don't Read with Your Eyes 329

25 It's My Symbol and I'll Cry If I Want To 341

26 Is He Serious? And Other Ironies 358

27 A Test Case 373

Postlude: Who's in Charge Here? 420

Envoi 430

Appendix: Reading List 435

Acknowledgments 458

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How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 27 reviews.
VirtualWord on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I found this to be edifying, entertaining, and a great introduction to literary analysis. As a long time reader I found this helpful in understanding symbols in literature.Being the product of an an era and an educational background that never really examined literature in depth I am eagerly anticipating delving into some of the recommended reading materialsto experience reading on a deeper level.
Marse on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a nice primer on literary analysis. Individual chapters could be very useful in high school literature classes, especially when reading classics that most students don't relate to--such "The Old Man and the Sea".
benbulben on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
¿Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar¿ until you read Thomas C. Foster¿s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Many writers in the history of writing smoked cigars. One of them a famous neurologist as Foster points out. But that probably has no consequence and points to the fact that sometime a cigar is just cigar unless they are all connected in some way. Then a cigar is never just a cigar it¿s the cigar or so it seems. It is a phallic symbol of sexual consequence in some way or other. Or maybe the smoke from the cigar forms a haze that clouds the thinking of the protagonist in the story who is unable to see beyond the end of his nose but whenever he smokes a cigar some mysterious happening occurs that affects the story in various revealing ways. Memory. Symbol. Pattern.....and Irony.
Spirit_Filled on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was a very entertaining book. My daughter had to read it in her Junior year of high school, and it has become one of my favorites. It opens up the worlld of literature for the common man.
cafekate128 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a great book for students to read!
EustaciaTan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the book that I read through before my English Paper 1 (Unseen Commentary) paper. As an introduction and a summary to the literary devices that writers employ, this book is excellent. The prose is readable, unlike the more "academic" books, but at the same time, does not come off as having no content - Homer is mentioned repeatedly, as is Chaucer. By integrating many books as examples into the text, it gives the reader a practical example of how to apply the device. The range of devices is also fairly adequate. Topics covered include: eating (communion), the paranormal, water, flight and illnesses and others. In each chapter, you can see the "literature professor" aspect, since his chapter titles neatly summarize the chapter, just like what we are told to do when writing an essay. Although a test case is given at the back of the book, there are no explicit lessons on how to write a literature essay. However, since he gives you the tools to analyse the essay, I assume that the implication would be that one already knows how to structure and write an essay. If, for example, you're not a literature student, have no interest in the classics, you should still read this book. Just knowing how writers can use various plot devices can help you enjoy reading so much more, and it may even entice you to read the Canon (which as he says is "a master list of works everyone pretends doesn't exist (the list, not the works) but that we all know matters in some important way"). The myriad amount of books he references is also an excellent way to find new books and authors, such as Toni Morrison. In conclusion, this book is wonderful. It's not an academic work, and if you're looking for a detailed, how to book that covers every aspect of literature, then don't bother with it. But if you're looking for a light read that happens to be educational, or a way to make literature fun again, then just try the book. There's no harm done.
debnance on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Now that I've read this book, you may as well not bother trying to read my book reviews; yes, that's right, I will now be examining themes and motifs and character motivation and other things like that and I'll probably be writing such amazing stuff that no one else will be able to understand me. Like a professor, right? No, my days of "Uh, I liked it" or "Well, I don't know" are over; I'll be finding things like water imagery and mother archetypes and references to obscure lines from Ulysses. So if you want to try to understand even a glimmer of what I'm writing about, you may need to read this book, too. ;->
Bellettres on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wonderful book. I refer to it frequently, especially when reading a book for discussion. It has enriched all my reading, however. Highly recommended.
bruce_krafft on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It seems to me that this book is a great wake-up call in a world where critical thinking seems to be a thing of the past. Everything is done passively; no one takes responsibility for their own actions, for their thoughts. Thomas C Foster tells you that you should be interacting with the author when you read their stories. Your past experiences, your culture, makes the stories deeper, denser and make you relate to each story in your own way, perhaps in a way that the author intended, or perhaps not. Does the story have a familiar ring to it? Is it a variation on a theme from Shakespeare or the bible? Did the geography or the weather matter to the plot? How would the story have changed if say it took place in a desert instead of a mountain top or if it was raining instead of snowing?Oh, and it is not as mind numbingly boring as the title would suggest. I would recommend this book.DS
jacketscoversread on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My chief complaint, although more my fault than the ¿non textbook, with How to Read Literature Like a Professor is that most of the novel, plays, and poems Foster discusses I have not read. In fact, I only recognized three of the works he mentioned; Animal Farm, Hamlet, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Therefore, I found it hard to understand exactly what Foster was trying to say through his examples and his connections from one example to another.And I feel like, since this was required reading for my advanced/gifted and talented English IV class, this book would have served as a better introduction to literature and been more helpful, as it has many tips and tricks for recognizing common symbolism and other literary techniques, the connotations of which can be easily missed, if this ¿non textbook¿ would have been required for Language Arts in eighth grade or, at least, Freshman English. Since ¿reading between the lines¿ has always come somewhat naturally to me, and for my ¿gifted and talented¿ classmates, How to Read Literature Like a Professor was some what lost on me. And it is my belief that even people seeking help wouldn¿t appreciate the italicized text that supposedly voices the reader¿s confused and helpless thoughtThat said, How to Read Literature Like a Professor served as a nice refresher on critical reading. As an added bonus, Foster¿s writing style makes him easy to understand, not patronizing or intimidating. In fact, some of what he writes received a chuckle from me here and there. ¿When they¿re writing about other things, they really mean sex, and when they write about sex, they really mean something else. If they write about sex and mean strictly sex, we have a word for that. Pornography.¿ {pg. 144}
heathernkemp on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book will single-handedly change the way you read literature. You'll never have to wonder anymore if you're "getting it" because Foster tells you all the tricks you need to know.
ksmyth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a fairly new teacher of high school English I thought this title might suggest some ideas for my students. In fact, it's probably a bit advanced for my sophomores, but left me with a few ideas nonetheless. Foster focuses on the idea of symbolism in literature and then goes on to suggest themes and specific examples. While this would normally be a fairly dry topic, he writes with wit and sarcasm that makes it all a bit more fun. The last chapter gives the reader an opportunity to discern themes and examples of symbolism in an Elizabeth Mansfield story. Included is an annotated list of great literature.
jesslyncummings on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
How to Read Literature Like a Professor was a good review of the basics of symbolism in literature. While I didn't necessarily learn anything new, I did gain some different perspectives on concepts I was already familiar with. I definitely will keep this book around to reference when I'm needing some inspiration for research papers. I also really enjoyed the tone of the book. It was playful instead of pejorative. Nicely done!I highly recommend it to all prospective (or current) English majors, especially if you are having difficulties understanding how your professor comes up with his or her reading.
DF1A_SarinaZ on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Recommend for anyone taking any AP English courses or enjoy analyzing literature and the author's ambiguous meanings. Not too bad considering the statute of its topic, since the author often gives comic examples that keep your attention.
MerryMary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Revealing, interesting, eminently readable. I tend to be only dimly aware of themes, parallels, mythic re-creations. This wonderful book leads the reader (me) to trust my own instincts when interpretations come to mind. The author has some good rules to keep in mind ("The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge." or "It's never just rain."), but he spends a good deal of time on the exceptions, and the alternate paths of reasoning. And, of course, irony trumps everything.
Cecilturtle on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Funny, insightful, concise, easy to read, this book is quite complete - and modest. I thought I was a very good reader until I started this book and realized how far my university days are! This was a great refresher - the concrete examples, the short chapters and variety in themes also made it an agreeable read. I've already noticed how it's made me change my habits and although I don't pretend to be a professor, I feel I'm certainly getting more out of my readings.Critics beware: yes, the choices are anglo-Western centric - but the precepts apply to all sorts of literature.
Samwisegirl12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A book about finding common themes in literature may sound extremely boring, but this book is anything but that.The author approaches the topic in an interesting, and often hilarious way that made me look forward to each new chapter.From meals to water to sex, all sorts of themes are covered with examples, explanations, and humor.If you want to have a deeper understanding of everything from required reading to your own "just for fun" books, this is a must-read - highly recommended!
SandSing7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I recommend this book to my incoming 10th grade Honors American Lit classes because it's one of the few books that covers archetypes, motifs, literary theory, and other important literary elements that's actually readable. Throughout the course of the year, we will put all of his chapters to use using varied works, and they will see how viable the information he provides actually is. I love too that Foster repeats that much of literary analysis has to do with "feeling" that there's something important about a certain aspect of a novel, because reading should be an emotional journey as well as a cerebral one.
jcelrod on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Breaks down some of the major elements of literature and how to identify them in order to appreciate more of what you're reading. A great book for my AP students!
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great, yet simple, guide to symbolism in literature, and how to appreciate and develop a sense for context in reading. I liked it so much, I immediately bought and began reading the sequel, which deals with novels.
Magadri on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. As several reviewers before me have said, Foster's tone is very readable and "un-snobbish." Each chapter is devoted to one specific theme/symbol/etc. with titles like "It's Greek to Me," "It's More Than Just Rain or Snow," and "It's Never Just Heart Disease." He covers quite a bit of material in this relatively thin book, but obviously, there are still some stones left unturned. He gives a list at the end of the book for more titles on literary criticism as well as literature and movies to check out. Another thing this book offered was a "test case" at the end. Foster includes Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Garden Party" at the end and challenges you to put your new knowledge to use.
kawika on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author is able to present broad concepts in an engaging way that will relate to a modern audience that is looking to add a little depth to that which they read. Certainly, there are more things that could have been covered, but this is an excellent starting point for most people.Throughout the book, the author includes a number of examples for the areas he covers. He not only uses classic from mythology and celebrated authors like Joyce, Hawthorne, and Lawrence, but is also able to reference more contemporary works and some authors you may not expect. The fact that he gives modern literature so much respect is refreshing. Also included in the appendix is a long list of suggestions, though he does make it a point to say that the list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive. Take what he presents and apply it to whatever you want to read and it can enhance your personal experience with the work, even if the author didn't intend that deep a meaning.
EricaKline on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is not a book for Literature majors, but attempts to distill-out some of the major themes and symbols in literature for the rest of us. Well written, funny, relatively jargon-free. I recommend it if you like to read and want to understand better what you are reading.
Niecierpek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book could have easily been part of the series of "Idiot's Guide to...". It is an introductory course in literary analysis and examines major myths, themes, symbols, motifs and intertextuality in literature. It's good and entertaining, as promised, but makes it sound like everything ever written neatly follows a pattern, or patterns and we should be analyzing everything accordingly. Consequently, he oversimplifies the issues a tad too much.
jennyo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was much more fun to read than it sounds from the title. It's easy to read and easy to understand, and most importantly, Foster makes analyzing literature seem natural and fun. He also stresses that literary works have multiple interpretations and you shouldn't be freaked out if you don't get the "right" one. He closes the book with this quote, which I really liked: We speak, as I've said before, of literary works, but in fact literature is chiefly play. If you read novels and plays and stories and poems and you're not having fun, somebody is doing something wrong. If a novel seems like an ordeal, quit; you're not getting paid to read it, are you? And you surely won't get fired if you don't read it. So enjoy.Foster talks about different types of stories (quests, vampires, etc.) and oft-referenced influences (the Bible, Shakespeare, folk tales), symbolism and irony, sex, setting, and lots more. And he makes it fun. He also includes a list of suggested works that actually looks like fun to read. Well, except for Ulysses.I think I'll hang on to this one and use it to help my kids once they get to a more analytical stage in their reading.Oh, and my favorite quote from the book: But we haven't read everything. Neither have I. Nor has anyone, not even Harold Bloom.