Sometimes I wish I had been an English major. There are times when I think reading for a living and analyzing books and being well-read would have been the ideal life for me. Then I remember that being unemployed sucks. So I'm usually fairly happy with my life choices, but I do at times feel like I am not well-read enough. I spent most of my adolescence and early adulthood reading almost nothing but sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. I have been extremely dedicated to reading more in the past few years, and have added many classics and literary works to my reading diet, though I'm still working my way through a lot of those "Really Important Books Everyone Should Read" lists and not expecting to get close to the end of them in my lifetime.
So anyway, I would also like to be more informed as I read some of those Great Works. I'm pretty smart and well educated so I usually catch historical context and allusions and references to other works, but there is much depth in the best works that probably goes over my head. How to Read Literature Like a Professor
is primarily a book about symbolism and finding it in books. Thomas Foster is (duh) a college professor, and he's trying to distill a lot of what he teaches in his entry-level undergraduate classes into an accessible book for the average reader. Thus, his chatty, jokey style is aimed at the reader who might be a little intimidated at the idea of being challenged by Serious Literature. Personally, I wanted a serious approach and could have stood a little more depth and less hand-holding, but when he gets down to the subject matter, Foster talks knowledgeably and reassuringly to an audience that wants to be culturally literate but suspects they might not be, which I guess includes me.
What he does is go through a list of symbols and what they mean and how many, many authors throughout history have used them, and how to spot them as you are reading. It's heavily Western-centric, so the foundations of much of the literature he talks about most often harken back to the ancient Greek myths and/or the Bible. This is not a deliberate bias on Foster's part and it doesn't mean all the authors who use these symbols are necessarily upholding Greek and Biblical mythology as superior to all others, just that if you are writing in the Western tradition, you cannot escape them. So Foster talks about how every meal is a communion and how to recognize a Christ figure in literature. (If he were doing more of a comparative literature study, he might have pointed out how the Jesus story itself was just a recycling of older myths.... oh, see, maybe I am not so culturally illiterate after all!) He also discusses vampires, roads, quests, sex, weather, death, fairy tales, irony, and Shakespeare, among many other recognizable images and symbols to look for.
His topics are (by his own admission) arbitrary and incomplete. Basically this book is a tutorial, and he ends it with a short story by Katherine Mansfield which he asks the reader to analyze, using all the tools he introduced earlier. Then he presents the results from a few of his students and his own analysis. Interestingly, they all hit some of the same themes but no one's analysis is the same and some come up with very different interpretations, which is the point: there is no "right" way to parse out what a story is "really" saying, though one should be able to spot some of the most obvious symbolism. It's a fun activity, and one I will probably find myself doing unconsciously as I read in the future.
So did this book make me more culturally literate or a more perceptive reader? Well... maybe not, though it was a good introduction to looking for symbolism. I enjoyed it, though I could have wished for a little more depth. If you want some heavier reading that drills down more into a long list of books and what they mean (without the overtly lit-crit approach), I might recommend Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel
. But I think I'm still glad I didn't major in English after all.