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Book Notes: “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas C. Foster


How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster (2003) is the book I wish I had read in college to ace my English coursework. Foster is, in fact, a college professor; he taught English at University of Michigan from the early 1970s until retirement in 2014. Reading “like a professor” means learning the “literary language” of fiction. Foster describes this as the “grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules.” Learn to see these patterns to enrich your reading with deeper layers of meaning and new interpretative possibilities.

Connection and comparison are two broad reading strategies. For instance, Foster emphasizes the importance of shared literary heritage: religious texts (e.g. the bible), mythology, legend, fairy tales, and Shakespeare. Literature, he insists, is not created in a vacuum. All literature grows out of what preceded it. Writers are influenced by other writers. Foster calls this “intertextuality”—the ongoing dialogue between books. Moreover, there’s another dialogue between writer and reader that’s also taking place (this "conversation with books" is something I’ve previously blogged about). This commingling of past/present and reader/writer generates all kinds of connections, contexts, comparisons, and resulting interpretations.

Foster also reminds us to see beyond the literal, surface details when reading. Don’t take a text at face value; look to the figurative or symbolic meanings in fiction. For instance, a meal might not simply be the consumption of food for nutritional purposes, it might signify communion which carries powerful religious overtones. Or consider rain which, in literary terms, often means more than water droplets falling from the sky. Rain can cleanse and purify, it can create a murky or isolating atmosphere, it can nourish the land or turn dirt into mud (to say nothing of the religious meanings such as floods, olive branches, baptism, and more). The point is this: literary language functions differently than real life. To unlock the richness of fictive works, stop reading literally and start reading with a literary eye.

I find that many of my peers categorize themselves exclusively as either non-fiction readers or fiction readers. This is a mistake. Yes, when it comes to learning, non-fiction has a tremendous amount to offer. But so does fiction. While it is true that some fiction is meant solely to be entertaining, this is not true of all fiction. There’s plenty of fiction that aims to enlighten and expand our minds about the human condition (and a host of other topics too). Foster’s book offers a helpful set of analytical tools to help us uncover those ideas. Moreover, it’s a great reminder of the importance of good literature and the cultural value of stories.

Pros: This book will open your eyes to a wide range of literary ideas and patterns. It’s provided me with several new reading tools that have enriched my fiction reading.

Cons: Some ideas in the book get repetitive. Foster’s discussion of irony is helpful but lacked clarify. I find Matt Bird’s description of irony in “The Secrets of Story” more compelling (my notes on Bird’s book).

Verdict: 6/10

Introduction: How’d He Do That?

  • The Faustian legend: A bargain with the devil. The hero is offered something he or she desperately wants. In exchange, they merely need to give up their soul.

    • Author uses this framework to read A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959). Mr. Linder is the devil.
  • We read the same stories, but we don’t all use the same analytical apparatus.

  • Anyone can learn and acquire this “language of reading.”

  • Literary language: “A grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules.”

  • Among the conventions of story:

    • Types of characters
    • Plot rhythms
    • Chapter structures
    • Point-of-view limitations
  • Different written mediums have different conventions (e.g. poems, short stories, plays). Different genres also have different conventions.

  • Some conventions are universal.

  • “When an English professor reads...a lot of his attention will be engaged by other elements of the novel. Where did that effect come from? Whom does this character resemble? Where have I seen this situation before? Didn’t Dante say that?”

  • This kind of reading makes use of connection and comparison. Author emphasizes memory, symbol and pattern.

    • Memory: Where have I seen this before? What is this similar to?
    • Symbol: Everything is a symbol until proven otherwise. What does it represent?
    • Pattern: Looking beyond plot, drama, character. Instead, look for the background routine and archetypes at work. Archetypes are the mythic originals on which patterns are based.

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

  • What does a quest require?

    • A quester
    • A place to go
    • A stated reason to go there
    • Challenges and trials
    • A real reason to go there.
  • “The real reason for a question never involves the stated reason. In fact, more often than not the quester fails at the stated task...they go because of the stated task, mistakenly believing that it is their real mission.”

  • A quest is educational. The real reason for a quest is self-knowledge.

2: Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion

  • Communion occurs whenever people eat or drink together.
  • “Breaking bread together is an act of sharing and peace.”
  • “To put characters, then, in this mundane, overused, fairly boring situation, something more has to be happening than simply beef, forks, and goblets.”
  • Example: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749). Tom and Mrs. Waters dine at an inn and enjoy a sexually suggestive meal together. The meal is a communion but it also represents sexual desire.
  • A failed meal is a bad sign. Consider the trope where someone stands up mid-meal and walks out angrily.
  • Alternatively stories where someone shares food with another elicit feelings of loyalty, kinship and generosity.

3: Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

  • Literal vs. symbolic meanings of vampirism and supernatural elements in fiction.
  • Vampire symbolic meanings: selfishness, exploitation, and a refusal to respect the autonomy of others.
  • “You don’t need fangs and a cape to be a vampire. The essentials of the vampire story: an older figure representing corrupt, outworn values; a young, preferably virginal female; a stripping away of her youth, energy, virtue; a continuance of the life force of the old male; the death or destruction of the young woman.”
  • When reading consider the meanings of other supernatural creatures and elements: ghosts, doppelgängers, werewolves, etc.

4: Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?

  • “There’s no such thing as a wholly original work of literature.”
  • Callbacks to other stories are common. One example: “Going After Cacciato” by Tim O’Brien (1978) in which a character falls through a hole in the road and says that the only way to get out is to fall back up (a reference to Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll 1865).
  • “Stories grow out of other stories, poems out of other poems. And they don’t have to stick to genre. Poems can learn from plays, songs from novels.”
  • The act of drawing parallels and comparisons imbues our reading with added levels of meaning and significance (fantastic, parodic, tragic, etc.).
  • Intertextuality is the ongoing interaction between poems, stories and books. It’s a kind of dialogue where subsequent texts add meaning to the preceding sources and to themselves.

5: When in Doubt, It’s from Shakespeare...

  • “Every age and every writer reinvents its own Shakespeare.”
  • “There is a ubiquity to Shakespeare’s work that makes it rather like a sacred text: at some very deep level he is ingrained in our psyches.”
  • “Shakespeare also provides a figure against whom writers can struggle, a source of texts against which other texts can bounce idea.” (remember intertextuality).
  • This dialogue between writers creates new and fresh contexts, situations, and meaning from old archetypal ideas.
  • Reading is a collective experience between writer and reader AND writer and other writers. Together these different participants engage and collectively imagine and reap meaning from the text. In other words: reading is not a solitary experience (despite our being taught that it is).

6: ...Or the Bible

  • Example from “Beloved” by Toni Morrison (1987) where four white men ride up to a house where escaped slave Sethe is living. We immediately know they represent the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (one has a rifle and personifies Death).
  • Loss of innocence stories often hearken back to The Fall of Adam and Eve and their exile from Eden. Once you lose innocence, you can never go back.
  • Religion was long ubiquitous in literate societies, hence its influence in books: “Every writer prior to sometime in the middle of the twentieth century was solidly instructed in religion.”
  • Contemporary books often use religion ironically to illustrate disparities and disruption (e.g. the seemingly pious characters are the most wicked).

7: Hanseldee and Greteldum

  • Author’s constant mantra: “All literature grows out of other literature.”
  • Children’s literature and fairy tales offers a rich source of shared literary knowledge between writers and readers. “We may not know Shylock, but we all know Sam I Am.”
  • “Hansel and Gretel” is one of the most universal tales: children lost and far from home.
  • “We want strangeness in our stories, but we want familiarity, too.” In part, we want the latter, so we can make sense of the story.

8: It’s Greek to Me

  • Myth is a way to explain human nature and behavior to ourselves.
  • Myths are shared cultural ideas and perspectives. They comprise stories that matter to a group of people and define how they see the world and their place in it.
  • Example: Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus the inventor makes wings for himself and his son Icarus to escape Crete. Icarus is the daredevil who flies too close to the sun against his father’s admonitions. The story offers timeless lessons on parenting and tension between youthful recklessness and mature wisdom.

9: It’s More than Just Rain or Snow

  • “Weather is never just weather.”
  • Rain for instance: consider the Noah’s ark story, drowning, olive branches, and rainbows. Consider the atmosphere it creates: dark, murky, isolating. Consider the misery it creates. The paradox of rain: it cleanses and is pure coming down but it creates mud and can dirty. Rain also nourishes and restores the land and has strong associations with Spring and growth.
  • Fog almost always signals confusion. Fog can also carry over to mental, ethical, physical, and social dimensions.

10: Never Stand Next to the Hero

  • Character surrogacy is a tool in literature whereby the main character experiences growth and events through others. This is done, in part, so the main character can grow and develop without fatal consequences. The deaths will often occur to those closest to him or her. The lessons must be learned vicariously.

  • Example: Achilles and Patroclus. Achilles is angry with Agamemnon and refuses to do battle against the Trojans. Patroclus begs Achilles to return to action and ultimately dons Achilles’ armor and leads the Myrmidons into battle only to be slain by Hector. This death finally causes Achilles to set aside his anger towards Agamemnon and turn his fury on Hector and the Trojans.

  • “That’s the problem with being best pals with a hero. They have needs, or perhaps the narrative has needs on their behalf, but they cannot fulfill those requirements directly, not if the story is to continue.”

    • Example: Mercutio not Romeo is killed in the tension between Montagues and Capulets.
    • Example: Uncas, not Natty Bumpo is killed by Magua in The Last of the Mohicans.
  • “Literature has its own logic; it is not life. Not only that, but: characters are not people.” They are representations with varying levels of detail.

  • “Characters are products of writers’ imaginations—and readers imaginations.”

  • “No character is created equal. One or two get all the breaks; the rest exist to get them to the finish line.”

  • Characters are only granted sufficient detail for them to accomplish their literary goals.

11: ...More Than It’s Gonna Hurt...

  • Violence in literature is more than literal. Among the possibilities: cultural and social implications, symbolism, thematic meaning, allegorical, biblical meaning, Shakespearean, etc.
  • Writers kill off characters to make action happen, create plot complications, resolve plot complications and put characters under pressure.
  • Example: Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). Sethe kills her daughter. It is a symbolic murder: An action that speaks to Sethe’s experience at a terrible time in history. A tragic choice that a mother makes to prevent her child from the life her mother endured.
  • Why an author uses specific types of violence may concern psychological dilemmas, spiritual crises or historical, social and political reasons.

12: Is That a Symbol?

  • Allegory vs. symbols:

    • Allegories are black and white. Their meaning is largely clear and unambiguous. Example: George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
    • Symbols are ambiguous. They can mean any number of things to any number of people.
  • “In general a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing.”

  • The flexibility and ambiguity of symbolism is a good thing. It allows a work to resonate across time and across different individuals. Ambiguity allows for multiple interpretation and meanings.

  • Questions, context, experience, and preexisting knowledge are tools for understanding symbols.

  • Consider the range of symbolic meanings for a cave: earliest homes of our ancestors (safety), primitive or primal, dark and unknown places, Plato’s parable of the cave, fear and anxiety.

  • “Every reader’s experience of every work is unique, largely because each person will emphasize various elements to differing degrees, and those differences will cause certain features of the text to become less pronounced.”

  • Symbolic meaning can be found in actions as well as things.

13: It’s All Political

  • “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (1843) as a critique of Malthusian thinking (that helping the poor would encourage poverty).

    • “Dickens picks Scrooge not because he’s unique but because he’s representative because there’s something of Scrooge in us and in society.”
  • “Overtly political writing can be one-dimensional, simplistic, reductionist, preachy, dull.”

  • “You could argue that the role of the individual is always politically charged, that matters of autonomy and free will and self-determination always drag in the larger society...”

  • “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allen Poe (1839) can be read as a critique of the European class system.

  • Common themes: power structures, class relations, justice and rights, gender issues as well as racial and ethnic interactions.

14: Yes, She’s a Christ Figure, Too

  • “Culture is so influenced by its dominant religious systems that whether a writer adheres to the beliefs or not, the values and principles of those religions will inevitably inform the literary work.”
  • Christ-figure characteristics: crucifixion and suffering, self-sacrifice, kindness, good with children, feeding others (loaves, fish, water, wine), carpenter, young (33 at death), humility, humble trappings, walked on water, inviting, alone in the wilderness, confrontation with the devil, temptation, in the company of thieves, parables, resurrection, disciples, betrayal, forgiving, redemption.
  • “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway (1952) in which titular character, Santiago, is a Christ figure.
  • “A Christ figure doesn’t need to resemble Christ in every way; otherwise he wouldn’t be a Christ figure, he’d be, well, Christ.”
  • Symbolic meaning is more important than literal ones. “Fiction and poetry and drama are not necessarily playgrounds for the overly literal.”
  • “We have to bring our imaginations to bear on a story if we are to see all its possibilities; otherwise it’s just about somebody who did something.”
  • This doesn’t mean we can interpret a story with no basis in the underlying text. If we want to invent stories of our own, that’s writing, not reading.

15: Flights of Fancy

  • Flying often represents freedom. Freedom from specific circumstances as well as general issues that weigh us down.
  • [Me: spoilers Having just finished James Clavell's Shogun, Foster's book gave me a new appreciation for the symbolism of flight. Shogun may not be literature, but Clavell clearly uses flight to represent two key characters: Mariko and Blackthorne. Both characters are held "captive" by the daimyo Toranaga--each for different reasons. Toranaga is an avid falconer and has two birds he uses to hunt with. The birds are representations of these two captive characters. At the end of the book, Toranaga sets one bird in honor of Mariko (ironically the character's actual freedom can only be achieved via an honorable death).]

16: It’s All About Sex

  • Thanks to the influence of Freud, sex in literature doesn’t need to be presented as literal sex. Other objects and activities can represent sexual organs and sexual acts.
  • The sexual connotations of the Grail legend: A young knight seeks a Holy Grail to unite lance and chalice. Order and fertility must be restored to the land (ruled by an aging king).
  • Mid 20th century films were governed by moral codes (The Hayes Code). Films had to suggest sex acts by cutting away from a couple to show waves breaking on a beach or a curtain blowing in the wind.
  • “The Rocking-Horse Winner” by DH Lawrence (1932) as a metaphor for masturbation. The horse riding fulfills the function of masturbation—a surrogate for sex.
  • “Scenes in which sex is coded rather than explicit can work at multiple levels and sometimes be more intense than literal depictions.”

17: ...Except Sex

  • “Describing two human beings engaging in the most intimate of shared acts is very nearly the least rewarding enterprise a writer can undertake.”
  • “When writers deal with sex, they avoid writing about the act itself...even when they write about sex, they’re really writing about something else.”
  • “French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles (1969) there is a sex scene between the main characters. What does it represent? The shortcomings of Victorian males? Ridiculing the hero for his poor performance? Sexual inadequacy?
  • Other books like Clockwork Orange (Burgess, 1962) and Lolita (Nabokov, 1958) use sex to represent evil and depravity.
  • Some stories use sex to represent liberation and freedom. Rebellion against religious or societal norms is another.

18: If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism

  • Baptism is a symbol rebirth. One existence ends and a new one begins—death and rebirth through the medium of water.
  • “If characters reformed every time they got wet, no book would ever have rain. The thing about baptism is, you have to be ready to receive it.”
  • Consider connection between baptism and Noah’s flood. Baptism is like an individual-scale reenactment of the flood myth.
  • Note that water conveys other meanings. It all depends on context and intent. Some rivers are used for rebirth, others might function like the River Styx (death).

19: Geography Matters...

  • “Literary geography is typically about humans inhabiting spaces, and at the same time the spaces inhabiting humans.”
  • “Geography is setting, but it’s also psychology, attitude, finance, industry—anything that place can forge in the people who live there.”
  • Example: “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe describes a bleak landscape before entering the decaying house of Usher. The characters of the book are similarly dreary and bleak.
  • Example: “Bean Trees” by Barbara Kingsolver (1988). Main character grows up in Kentucky where the soil is poor, prospects are dim and the horizon is short and blocked by mountains. The protagonist heads west to Arizona for opportunity and rebirth (big horizons, sunshine, clean air, possibilities).

20: ...So Does Season

  • The seasonal metaphor is common/shared literary language: e.g. Spring = youth. Winter = end of life.
  • “Don’t look for a shorthand in seasonal use—summer means x, winter y minus x—but a set of patterns that can be employed in a host of ways, some of them straightforward, others ironic or subversive. We know those patterns because they have been with us for so long.”
  • The Greek myth of Persephone and Hades exhibits the phenomenon of cultural attempts to explain the seasons through stories.

21: Marked for Greatness

  • Literature uses differences, including physical scars and imperfections, in symbolic terms.
  • “Sameness doesn’t present us with metaphorical possibilities, whereas difference—from the average, the typical, the expected—is always rich with possibility.”
  • The difference must be visible to others. Consider the popular character Harry Potter and his conspicuous scar.
  • Example: Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). Sethe has scars that resemble a tree on her back (from whippings). Baby Suggs has a bad hip. Beloved has three scratches on her forehead.
  • Example: “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway (1926). Character Jake Barnes has a war injury which renders him unable to have sex or procreate. “The injury is symbolic of the destruction of possibilities, spiritual as well as procreative...”

22: He’s Blind for a Reason, You Know

  • “Something important must be at stake when blindness pops up in a story. Clearly the author wants to emphasize other levels of sight and blindness beyond the physical.”
  • Example: “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. Tiresias is blind but sees the truth of Oedipus. Oedipus is blind to the truth but eventually blinds himself when he discovers it.
  • “When literal blindness, sight, darkness, and light are introduced into a story, it is nearly always the case that figurative seeing and blindness are at work.”
  • “If you want your audience to know something important about your character, introduce it early, before you need it.”

23: It’s Never Just Heart Disease...And Rarely Just Illness

  • Heart disease as one of the most literary and lyrical illnesses. The heart keeps us alive and is also seen as the symbolic source of human emotion.

  • “The Sisters” by James Joyce uses paralysis as a key theme: socially the residents of Dublin are socially paralyzed by church and state rules and norms.

  • The rules of disease in literature:

    1. Not all diseases are created equal. Some are more literary than others.
    2. Literary diseases are picturesque. Example: Tuberculosis where the sufferer “takes on the appearance of a martyr in medieval paintings.”
    3. Mysterious in origin.
    4. Strong symbolic or metaphorical possibilities. Example: Tuberculosis as a “wasting” disease. The individual slowly wastes away.
  • Malaria worked well metaphorically (translates as “bad air”) until people learned that transmission was via mosquitos.

  • Ailments with hereditary origin can carry intergenerational tension and themes.

  • More recently AIDS became an important literary disease similar to Tuberculosis.

24: Don’t Read with Your Eyes

  • “Too rigid insistence on the fictive world corresponding on all points to the world we know can be terribly limiting not only to our enjoyment but to our understanding of literary works.”
  • Reading requires flexibility and the ability to inhabit the world of the writer and their perspective. “Don’t read only from your own fixed position in the Year of Our Lord two thousand and some.”
  • “If you want to put pressure on a character to cause him to change or crumble, take him away from home, make him inhabit an alien world.” This is true not only of characters inhabiting a book, but also for READERS.
  • Understanding does not equal acceptance. We can try to understand the violence of the Homeric epics without accepting that type of societal destruction.

25: It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To

  • “The Flea” poem by John Donne (1633) in which a flea bites a man and a woman and commingles their bloods. It is in allusion to the commingling of fluids in sex. It is an unusual metaphor or symbolism that demonstrates how idiosyncratic symbolism can be.

  • Author identifies two types of symbolism: public and private.

    • Public symbols are the shared symbols that are used repeatedly by authors (e.g. spring’s association with rebirth and renewal).
    • Private symbols are specialized or writer-specific symbols. For instance, Yeats uses something called a gyre as a symbol.

26: Is He Serious? And Other Ironies

  • Author discusses irony and how it “trumps everything.” What he means by this (I think) is that literary language establishes certain patterns and expectations. Irony tends to upend those expectations.

  • Example: Roads symbolize journeys, quests and self-knowledge. In Samuel Becket’s “Waiting for Godot” (1953) two characters stand next to a road that they never bother to travel.

    • “Their inability to do so indicates a colossal failure to engage life.”
    • But their proximity to the road is key to the meaning of the story. Without the road, the impact of their inaction is less meaningful.
  • “That’s irony—take our expectations and upend them, make them work against us.” [me: I’m still partial to Matt Bird’s definition of irony as ““any meaningful gap between expectation and reality.” in his [Secrets of Story]]

  • Examples:

    • Spring comes and the wasteland doesn’t notice.
    • Heroine is murdered at dinner with the villain during a toast in her honor.
    • A Christ figure causes the destruction of others while he survives.
  • The symbol or signifier’s meaning is deflected in some way from the expected meaning. Irony is a deflection from expectation.

  • The irony of A Clockwork Orange (Burgess) is that for goodness to exist or mean anything, evil must also exist as a counterbalance or point of comparison. Ale is a Christ figure, but as a negative model—diametrically opposed to Christ.

27: A Test Case

  • In this chapter, the author provides the text for the short story “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield (1922) and the reader is guided through an interpretation of the text using the previously discussed techniques and ideas.

Postlude: Who’s in Charge Here?

  • “A reader’s only obligation, it seems to me, is to the text. We can’t interrogate the writer as to intentions, so the only basis of authority must reside in the text itself. Trust the words and the words only. You can never find the motivation behind them.”

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