Monday, February 22, 2021

Book Review: How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster (2014)

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster was originally published in 2003. I read the revised edition, issued in 2014.  This book teaches the reader how to look for symbols, themes, and patterns in works of literature in the way that is expected by English professors. Using widely read examples by authors such as James Joyce, Toni Morrison, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O'Connor, and Katherine Mansfield, Foster highlights the meaning hidden between the lines of literary works and explains the commonly understood significance of everything from heart disease to highways. 

I have long wondered why so many of my college classmates seemed to get such wildly different things out of reading assignments than I did, and I suspected this book held a lot of the answers. I was not wrong. This book does indeed unlock a secret code that true English majors seem to know and happily follow. If I had read this book before applying to college, I would have done things very differently because there is one thing I now know for sure: I never want to read literature like a professor. 

I think one of the most irritating aspects of my college English classes was the obsession with sexual imagery. I started college at 17, coming from a (happily) sheltered background and honestly I don't think I fully realized that an author would put sexual content into a book on purpose. Even now, 20 years later, I think there was still a part of me that felt the same way the author of this book says many people feel: that English professors just have dirty minds. This book, however, makes it pretty clear that 20th century writers, at least, were writing about sex whenever they mentioned bowls, keys, waves, and/or staircases, and that a part of the job of the reader is to find these subtle cues and make sense of them. I don't like the idea of spending my time that way, and if my ignorance of sexual innuendo is a reason that I wasn't a better English major, that is fine by me. 

Another thing that struck me was in Foster's chapter on Christ figures. He writes: "[I]f you want to read literature like a professor, you need to put aside your belief system, at least for the period during which you read, so you can see what the writer is trying to say." For better or for worse, when I was in college, I did not do this. Refusing to set aside my beliefs while I read was not a conscious decision, but I think my established worldview was such that it would never occur to me to assume anyone thought certain topics were appropriate to include in books, or that it was appropriate for me to discuss those topics with other people in front of a professor. Obviously, we need to be able to empathize with points of view other than our own to make sense of certain books, and I think I am better at that now, but I definitely was not about to go looking for immoral subject matter in my homework assignments.

This book also disagrees with me about authors as authorities. When I wrote my thesis on Flannery O'Connor, my chief argument was that she wrote her stories to fulfill a particular mission which she stated over and over again in her lifetime. I was specifically refuting a collection of essays which argued that her book could be read without a religious lens. Foster, though, argues that what an author intends isn't relevant and that if we see something in a text, that means it's probably there. This way of thinking opens the Pandora's box for every self-important undergraduate to rewrite texts in their own image, and I hate that. What the author means matters. If he hasn't conveyed it well, so be it, but to use the author's words to tell whatever story you wish to read is obnoxiously narcissistic and represents everything I hated about majoring in English. 

Obviously, I have a big chip on my shoulder about academia, so I went into this book with negative preconceptions and that colors my reading of it quite a bit. Just to counteract my criticisms, I do want to mention the positive aspects I saw in the book. I really appreciated Foster's willingness to consider books through the lens of the time period in which they were published. Too often nowadays books fall out of favor because they don't express contemporary beliefs on a given topic. But a book is a product of its time and to understand it, we have to stand in the shoes of the characters in the story and/or the reader of that time period. I also loved the way he used "The Garden Party" by Katherine Mansfield as a case study. The analyses of the story were so interesting, and though I could never have come up with them on my own in a thousand years, I enjoyed them. Really, though, the moments I enjoyed most in this book involved Foster's thoughts on Ulysses. He says two things that validated my experience with that monster of a novel: 

  1. "The only thing that can really prepare you to read Ulysses is reading Ulysses."
  2. "Ulysses is not for beginners. When you feel you've become a graduate reader, go there. My undergraduates get through it, but they struggle, even with a good deal of help."
Last year, I concluded that it would be impossible for an undergraduate to really get Ulysses and it does make me feel better to realize that I'm not alone in this opinion.

Ultimately, I think this is a great book to read for high school juniors or seniors who are considering majoring in English because it will help them decide whether they'll be able to stomach it or not. This book accurately represents the kinds of things that were discussed regularly in my college-level English classes, and had this book been available prior to my applying to college, I might have made a different decision. I despise the kind of literary analysis that attaches symbolic meaning to everything and insists that what the author is "really" saying is never on the surface and has to be coaxed out through endless debate and argument, and that any reading is valid so the author doesn't actually matter anyway. I learned that about myself during a very expensive four years. Even in hardcover, this book would have been a much cheaper investment.

I usually love a good book about books, but I didn't love this one at all. If anything, it made me want to stop reading altogether because there is no hope of my ever getting it "right." Readers who genuinely enjoy dissecting the books they read will probably love this book, but if that's not your thing, there isn't much this book can do other than rain on your reading parade.

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