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.