Review: How to Read Literature like a Professor

I was introduced to a book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor, written by Thomas Foster, in the past year, though I only recently found the time to read it. I was apprehensive to reading the book at first because I though it might be stuffy, or inapplicable, or even repetitive. And while many of the “ways to read” he presented were familiar to me, they were neither stuffy not inapplicable. In fact, I found them refreshing and exciting as he applied some in ways I had not considered before.

Anyone who has taken an English class probably knows the basics of what to look for when reading literature, especially good literature (then again, I might just say, generally “old” literature). But I think only those who have taken a good literature class would have gone through most of the approaches that Foster takes in his book. In fact, while I was reading the book, I wondered if perhaps my professors had read this book before or if they simply had a stroke of genius. I prefer to think it was a little of both, as I had some particularly good literature professors, in my humble opinion.

Foster goes through some major themes, motifs, interpretations, and inspirations of literature that I hope most students or avid readers would have at least stumbled across. His book, though, takes these ideas and explains what and why they are as well as giving a sample of literature that contains them. These are such as: the quest and what it means; virginity and vampires; poetry, its forms and uses; the versatility of a character across literature; Shakespeare and his offspring; the weather; symbols; sex and when it is not; social motivations; morality; physical appearance; and of course, how Christ and Christianity influenced literature. The latter I found to be most intriguing, along with his dealings with politics. Throughout the book, though I did try to guess, I could not decide if the writer was a christian or not. I have my own opinions, but I have withheld myself from doing research on the author, as I am often apt to do. While I will eventually try to find out, I appreciated him taking a moderate approach so as to present things in the light of literature and her applications rather than to push an agenda one way or another.

I found his writing balanced and decently informed in various subjects. His work is concise (if I had not been so busy, I could have finished the book in a handful of days, though it took me a solid month). The chapters are short, but clear, to the point, and entertaining. As I said before, Foster’s writing is most engaging. You can tell that he not only knows what he is talking about, but is well read and enjoys his work. He does not write nor teach for necessities sake, but because he actually likes it.

Throughout the book, Foster mentions dozens of pieces of literature. I attempted to keep a running list of pieces I wanted to read at some point on my Goodreads page, but I did not record every book, poem, or play that he happened to mention. Thankfully, he placed a list of works at the end of his book so that readers, like you and me, could be sure they could get around to reading the ones we did not want to forget or miss by trying to flip back through the book.

One thing that I appreciated most about Foster’s book was that it gave me a better glimpse at what it is like to read like a professor. I do not mean to be quaint. While I do love literature, and there were only a few very surprising things that he presented in the book, Foster took apart literature I have and have not read and placed them in categories I may not have considered, presenting those pieces in a light I never saw. How to Read Literature Like  Professor really helps a reader to see with the glasses of one who reads for a living. While it is good to read for fun, I find that a book has greater depth when I know why a writer was writing what he wrote, when he wrote it, and what his influences were.

I like to know these things. I also find them to be beneficial. For example: I wrote a paper on the Aeneid, but not on the adventure, but on whether or not Aeneas was a Roman or a Greek. I took apart the poetry found towards the beginning that, if my memory serves me well, talked of foundations, children and families, men leading, and honey. There were a few other examples, and my paper expounded upon the subject more, but in general, those things supported the Roman Pietas rather than Greek Cleos. But, I only knew to look for these things because I knew the difference between Roman and Greek mentality – both of which have permeated Western culture – and why those differences mattered, especially to Virgil.

What does this have to do with Foster’s book? In short, he shows why knowing these things matter and why readers should look for them, even if they are reading for pleasure rather than work. Not only does it expand our minds and learning, but knowing the backdrop and the fine-print aids us enjoying a piece. Knowing Greek literature helps us understand modern American writers; knowing Arabian Nights prepares us for the Canterbury Tales; knowing history helps us understand the present; knowing the details explains the big picture. A story can be a good story, but reading it with the correct glasses will make it great and impactful. I have often found that authors seem to hide bits, waiting for the right person to find them. Their works are enjoyable without the reader knowing them, but having the satisfaction of “Aha!” makes them all the better. This, and so much more, is why Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a great book, not only for its educational purposes, but also for the world it opens up to a reader.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Rose

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