Two Book Notes: How to Read Literature Like…

How To Read

As a reforming symbol skeptic I have been on a search for books to explain the nuances of literature, the extra layers of meaning beneath the surface of good stories, and the strategies that refined literary students employ to analyze their readings. I’ve had these two books, How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, for years. I’ve started and re-started them a few times but never in conjunction with a steady reading diet. Now that I’m able to read a few books a month, knock on wood, I have a bit more interest in and opportunity to appreciate what I’m reading.

In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster addresses the angles I would expect from an English professor: symbols, themes, weather, violence, illness, blindness – motifs and strategies that writers allegedly use to add significance. He discussed allusions to the Bible and Shakespeare and Greek mythology. It was excellent in the way that it taught and reinforced ideas I had about what to pay attention to when reading a book. Even Foster admits that it was by no means exhaustive, but he covered enough breadth of material to give me a starting point, a method even, for picking up on what clues and details are meant to beg a reader to go a bit deeper.

What this book represents is not a database of all the cultural codes by which writers create and readers understand the products of that creation, but a template, a pattern, a grammar of sorts from which you can learn to look for those codes on your own.

It gave me ideas about what additional reading I need to do in order to form a more solid foundation for literary analysis. It sparked thoughts and angles for my own writing. I loved it.

I expected, unfairly because it was the second book of the two that I read, that Reading Like a Writer would be more of the same except from the pesrpective of someone who has had to use and organize all those devices. It wasn’t. Prose opens and closes with chapters committed to broad, sweeping advice on the subject of writing – like the appetizers and desserts of a fine meal, opening and closing in a way to tempt and satisfy without spoiling the taste of the main course. Her entree is a study that starts with the barest unit of prose: words. From words to sentences from sentences to paragraphs. And then onward to key elements of good storytelling: from narration to character from character to dialogue from dialogue to details from details to gesture.

There was not one mention of, “To really drive a point home, pick from a commonly-used symbol and drop it in there.” Writing is writing. There’s a story to tell and any number of word combinations to tell use. Writers make it real by employing what they know and observe about humanity in the conversations, settings, and details.

Both books were challenging, thought-provoking, and constantly back-pedaling. This works here….except when it doesn’t. This is how this is used….except when it isn’t. Prose said it most clearly when she wrote:

And actually, many things that we ourselves consider indispensable for a work of fiction may turn out, the more we read, to be superfluous. If the culture sets up a series of rules that the writer is instructed to observe, reading will show you how these rules have been ignored in the past, and the happy outcome. So let me repeat, once more: literature not only breaks the rules, but makes us realize that there are none.

Most of all I appreciated the examples that both authors used to emphasize their points. In most chapters the bulk of the reading was excerpts from myriad books over centuries of literature. If I may continue the feasting allusion, it was a veritable buffet of reading samples. And it was delicious. My “to be read” pile has quadrupled thanks to extensive reading lists at the end of both books.

Individually they were solid books. Reading them back-to-back enhanced their contributions by creating a thorough range of devices, strategies, techniques, and wisdom for reading more comprehensively and possibly writing more meaningfully. In one aspect they converged nicely and Foster summed it up:

My main suggestion, though, is to read things you like. You’re not stuck with my list. Go to your bookstore or library and find novels, poems, plays, stories that engage your imagination and your intelligence. Read “Great Literature,” by all means, but read good writing. Much of what I like best in my reading I’ve found by accident as I poked around bookshelves. And don’t wait for writers to be dead to be read; the living ones can use the money. Your reading should be fun. We only call them literary works. Really, though, it’s all a form of play. So play, Dear Reader, play.

10 Responses to “Two Book Notes: How to Read Literature Like…”

  1. sfkeefer

    “And don’t wait for the writers to be dead to be read; the living ones could use the money.” Haha, so true! I’ve read bits and pieces of “How to Read Literature like a Professor” but now I want to go back through and reread it cover to cover. 🙂

    • RebeccaV

      I enjoyed it in bits and pieces. Mostly, I’d read an example and want to stop to go read the whole book (not that I ever did) OR I’d read an example, stop halfway through because it was boring me, and have to start again later. It’s a decent reference resource; maybe not a compelling read straight through though 🙂

      (I mostly included that quote because of that statement 🙂 )

  2. Carrie Rubin

    This makes me think of a funny thing I saw on Facebook recently. It showed a split screen underneath the phrase ‘The coat is blue.” (Or something like that–I can’t remember the exact phrase, but something was blue. )

    Underneath the phrase, on one side it said “The English teacher’s interpretation of ‘the coat is blue,’ which was followed by a bunch of sophisticated explanations on why the author chose to make the coat blue. But on the other side, it had “Author’s reasoning for the blue coat.” And under that it said, “Because the coat is effing blue, that’s why.”

    Just made me laugh, because sometimes what is, just is.

    As always, you impress me with your literary pursuits. 🙂

    • RebeccaV

      YES! This is so true! I was about halfway through the Professor book and felt like a nincompoop and fairly certain that I had completely missed 1,000 points from all my favorite books because I had no idea that stepping in a puddle could symbolize renewal (actually, I probably got that wrong too now that I think about it). Then I read the Writer perspective and thought, “Oh, that’s much better.” I write because words are fun. I read because there are so many possibilities for how to use them, and I love discovering how someone else did it.

      I’m not saying that it’s all bunk – I’m learning to appreciate the layers and nuances better now – but I don’t want to spend twelve years contemplating a blue coat!

      Laughing about it is a better response than going on a rant so thank you for keeping me off that ledge 🙂

      • Carrie Rubin

        It’s funny, because with my own book, when I went to a couple book clubs who were kind enough to choose it for their selection, I was surprised by some of the questions people asked in terms of what the meaning was behind something I wrote. Sometimes there was no meaning–I just needed something to fit the purpose. Yet, other things, for which I DID assign meaning, went unnoticed. Now, I’m certainly not comparing my book to a literary work, but it was amusing to see this discrepancy played out firsthand.

      • RebeccaV

        That seems like a great compliment to you – how awesome that your subconcious is tacking in extra layers of meaning!

  3. Traci

    I love the Foster book and use several chapters from it with my seniors. He has a way of making the material accessible so that they have “aha!” moments.

    • RebeccaV

      He seemed to have a good grasp of what cynical readers might be thinking and acknowledging it without being haughty, which I appreciated since I was reading it with a healthy dose of skepticism for some of the strategies.

  4. thmatthews

    Hi Rebecca, I happened across this article because I had just coincidentally bought both books off Amazon. Thank you for the review, it was enlightening.
    I’m looking forward to learning more about the symbols and motifs and learning to incorporate old and unique symbols into my writing, as Prose and Foster indicates writers have been doing/should do.

    • RebeccaV

      Hope the books are a good purchase for you – I pull mine out frequently as I’m writing. Plus the reading recommendations nearly toppled my TBR pile. Good luck!


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