Monday, March 11, 2013

How to Read Literature Like a Professor

by Thomas Foster
New York : Quill, c2003.

Ever had an English class where you wondered, "How on earth does the professor come up with this interpretation stuff?" Though Thomas Foster himself is a college professor, he clearly remembers what it was like to be a high school or college undergrad reader. In short chapters, he engagingly and clearly explains some of the motifs, symbols, and patterns one can look for and expect when reading.

I truly wish that I had read this informative and entertaining book when I was in college. I was an English major, but I didn't buy a good fourth of what I wrote in my papers, feeling like I was reading too much between the lines. The main issue for me was "How could the author have possibly meant ---- or been reacting to ---- ? How do you know?" I never felt that my English professors answered this satisfactorily, but in one chapter, Foster does: since stories are, at their core, interconnected, an author may have read (and reacted to) one book that was informed by a previous one. Even if the author never intended the connection to the original story, his or her writing has indeed been affected by it because of that later book the author meant to refer or react to (I'm not explaining this very well, but trust me, Foster does).

I may never read quite like an English professor (I think it would take multiple readings of any text to do so). But, his attitude that it's OK to enjoy the story at its most literal level and not pick up on every nuance or have exactly his interpretation made me think that I could be a better reader than I have been, and has inspired me to read more texts that take a reader's effort to fully appreciate.

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