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

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

3.8 103
by Thomas C. Foster

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What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey?. Shares a meal? Gets drenched in a sudden rain shower? Often, there is much more going on in a novel or poem than is readily visible on the surface -- a symbol, maybe, that remains elusive, or an unexpected twist on a character -- and there's that sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning of a literary text


What does it mean when a fictional hero takes a journey?. Shares a meal? Gets drenched in a sudden rain shower? Often, there is much more going on in a novel or poem than is readily visible on the surface -- a symbol, maybe, that remains elusive, or an unexpected twist on a character -- and there's that sneaking suspicion that the deeper meaning of a literary text keeps escaping you.

In this practical and amusing guide to literature, Thomas C. Foster shows how easy and gratifying it is to unlock those hidden truths, and to discover 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 rain. Ranging from major themes to literary models, narrative devices, and form, How to Read Literature Like a Professor is the perfect companion for making your reading experience more enriching, satisfying, and fun.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this valuable handbook for English literature students and enthusiasts alike, Foster (English, Univ. of Michigan) shares his love of the subject, encouraging readers to explore multiple meanings when reading literary works rather than be daunted by strict or limiting interpretations. The text is broken down into manageable chapters that focus on literary sources such as the Bible, themes and symbols ranging from vampires to rain, and literary forms (e.g., the sonnet). An amazing breadth of literature is covered, from Greek myths to Shakespeare to modern literature and even contemporary screenplays. Foster's key strength is his ability to tackle such a vast and weighty topic in an informal and conversational manner, making fairly complex literary theories such as intertextuality and Northrop Frye's notion of literary archetypes accessible through clear illustrations. Written in plain English with plenty of humorous anecdotes, this book certainly lives up to its description as "lively and entertaining." A worthy addition to academic and large public libraries.-Rebecca Bollen, North Bergen, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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8.04(w) x 5.36(h) x 0.78(d)

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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.

Meet 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 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 103 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't read much. A book has to really steal my attention away from my cherished vice TV. This book did that. Sometimes it did lag, but I was so keen on getting to his next witty or engaging comment-usually found at the beginning of chapters-I muscled through it. Now I analysis books-and music, poetry, plays, my day-with the tool box he gave me. Caution though, his knowledge and wisdom are so great you often put the book down feeling small. It's good and I liked it.
jayhantz More than 1 year ago
Thomas C. Foster writes an excellent compliment to any one's library who reads a lot. He describes looking past the words and looking into what the author is really trying to say. You almost feel like you are back in high school, or college when he asks you to read a snippet of something, then asking "what does that mean?" If you ever wanted to really understand what it means when an author mentions water, falling in mud, flying, eating with others, etc and other literary symbols, then this is an excellent book to read. Some of the chapters seem to go on and on, but he keeps reaffirming each symbol (which is arranged to be each chapter) to the reader and offering examples found in many literary works. He also lets you know that the symbols in his book are 1) not always what he says they are and 2) the symbols in the book aren't the definite complete list. There are many other symbols, like fire, he doesn't cover; but he wants to give you the basics for reading something, stepping back, and catching what the real meaning to the text is. I recommend this to anyone that would like to get more out of their reading experience, and those who have, or run a book club. I enjoyed it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was assigned this book for school reading and it's great for that purpose. The author informs you on different literary techniques authors use in a comprehensive and interesting way. However, the content may be too dry for casual readers who are not required to read this book.
DavinciDW More than 1 year ago
Seldom in literature is anyone willing to address the intricate nature of the written words meaning. In the case of Thomas Foster's book "How To Read Literature Like A Professor' all barriers have been shattered. If you are a writer or aspire to be one you will profit from the definitive way Mr Foster peels back the layers of storytelling. Like removing the leaves of an artichoke we are brought deeper and closer to the core dipping each leaf in the butter, relishing the new flavor of his knowledge. and all at once we find the heart of the delicacy and he gives us a taste of wisdom far beyond our expectations. All in all this book becomes one of those "awww moments" and leaves us wiser and with a greater understanding of our species cultural intercourse in literature.
laurennnnn More than 1 year ago
How to Read Literature like a Professor is a great book for learning parts of a story inside and out. By learning about how why and for what reason different books were written, anyone will be able to understand the complex workings of an authors mind. The author, Tom Foster, has an interesting and sarcastic type of writing that is sure to draw in anyone’s focus on a subject. As an English Professor himself, though somewhat a comedian, Foster is constantly making jokes on other authors’ works and how he and his own class view them. He takes what can be seen as a dull subject and turns it into something much more enjoyable. This book is for students or adults that want to take their reading further in order to fully understand the history and structure of most stories, novels or poems. How to Read Literature like a Professor gives great knowledge and tips on not only reading literature, but also on fully embracing the text and understanding hidden symbols. From learning about Shakespeare to iambic pentameters, this book can transform anyone into a Literature Professor. The full title, How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines, is obviously a perfect indication of what the book contains. The cover picture however, was less than a perfect match in my opinion. In order to draw in people’s attention, I believe a more interesting picture should be in place of the text and magnified glass. However, the text and pages were very simple to read. Tom Foster has a very profound personality in his writing. He’s very witty and makes many jokes that relate to everyday life in whichever book he’s analyzing, but not overwhelming to the point of being annoying. While he teaches, he gives out a theme of ‘easy learning’. Foster writes well enough to maintain a steady tempo that’s very easy to follow. At this speed, he teaches with ease and examples that people experience daily, instead of naming off facts and details left for the reader to memorize. With this type of playful writing style, anyone and everyone is bound to learn something. The book itself stands alone to many English study course textbooks; Foster puts questions and details from students in his actual class- and answers them. Many points that stood out to me were the details describing the symbolism of rain, snow and eating together. This book teaches many things, but the most important is to be imaginative, even in reading. As the author, Tom Foster, quotes “We have to bring our imaginations to bear on a story if we are to see all it's possibilities; otherwise it's just about somebody who did something… we discover because our imagination engages with that of the author. Pretty amazing when you consider that the author may have been dead for thousands of years, yet we can still have this exchange, this dialogue, with her.” How to Read Literature Like a Professor was a very informational book. I believe it may have even taught me more things than a literature textbook with literally hundreds of more pages. I loved learning about the many different uses of symbolism, and I will now always read differently. Though this was a great book to study and learn from, I wouldn’t recommend this book for normal reading or to bring to the beach. However, this one of the most non difficult books I’ve read while actually learning and laughing at the same time.
SecondRunReviews More than 1 year ago
As an English major, I found this book to be a delightful read and flashback to the hours I spent in class dissecting the symbolism in movies and books that were assigned viewing and reading for class.
AikiPen More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! Helped me get a grasp of all that stuff my teachers were trying to get me to understand in school.
Kelan688 More than 1 year ago
I never knew somebody could break down literature and give important key facts that many people ever knew about like Thomas C. Foster, a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Flint. His book, “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” was a New York Times Bestseller in 2003. This book is for people who are interested in learning about literature and understanding what is being read. The book encourages readers to test their knowledge on anything they read. The title is called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor.” Really, all professors do not know how to read literature. But it also says "A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines." So that let me know what I was about to read. The title matched the concept of the book and I like it. One of the most things I like about the book was the cover. It has a magnifying glass looking into the book “Huckleberry Finn” with the title in the middle. The unique thing about it was that when I rubbed my hand across the book, I notice that the magnifying glass had a silk like material and rest felt like paper. I thought that was very interesting and made me want to read the book even more. There were no characters in the story; it was just Thomas C. Foster giving his point of view on different subjects. He explains what literature is, what it means to us, and how we can understand it. I learned many things through reading the book. I learned about symbols and what they mean in different stories. Like rain, snow, and thunder symbolize something other than just weather. The book makes the reader focus on motifs, themes, and many more aspects after being read. I found out many things that I did not know about books I have read in the past. There were many examples in the book so that I could understand what was being taught and what I was reading. It includes a list of famous novels, poems, and plays. He shows how to read between the lines and understand what is being read. The book was very interesting to me. To me, it’s a source to learn more about literature than I never had known. Thomas C. Foster is a brilliant man and has great knowledge in teaching others. I have knowledge about everything I read now. When I read novels, poems, and plays, I break down each important sentence and find the true meaning about them. I would recommend this book to anybody and people who want learn more about literature.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was reading the book and it had a way of taking my attention away from what I was doing to what I needed to do. This book is one-of-a-kind. It carries knowledge in such a way that most people wouldn't see it in. It even helps you memorize what you need to learn too. I recommend you to buy this book if you do want to learn, but cant seem to get into books because this one WILL get your attention and you will be hooked up to the information given. 
Kat Russel More than 1 year ago
So i found it very satisfying, though i am a big fan of reading and am able to appreciate analysies. It does require some patience but it is certainly helpful, especially to less well read individuals.
saradippity More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed his "How to Read Novels Like a Professor" and debated getting this one as well for a long time, worried about crossover material and not as much unique information. However, it is well worth having both books, this one goes more into symbolism while the other book covers more of form.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was required to read this book and tbh burn them all. Minecrap rules.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have to admit when I first saw this on my summer assignments reading list, I could have screamed. Little did I know that instead of being a traditional textbook that dribbled on in monotone for 4,000 years, it would be one of the more easily read informational texts I've read ever. Foster's conversational tone and spot-on examples in this book make it a pleasure to read while also giving helpful insight on better understanding English literature. Reviews of any sort are rare for me to give, but I couldn't help giving Foster one because I truly feel that this book deserves it. Two thumbs up for this one.
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I'm required to read this for school so I wasn't looking forward to reading it but I'm almost done with it and it's actually really good.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading this book, go back and reread your favorite book. You'll see it in a subtly different light.
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I was required to read this book for school, but I actually found it pretty interesting and would really recommend this book to anybody going into a 9th or 10th grade high achiever english class because it'll give you a lot of insight already to what you're going to learn.  I was required to read this before my senior year and wish that i'd have picked it up a little bit earlier, it's like an english student's bible.
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