August 15, 2010
Thomas C Foster's Road Map to Literature - "How to Read Literature Like a Professor."
For once I am glad I did not set aside this book because of its title! Thomas Foster's "How to Read literature Like a Professor" is a refreshing and engaging piece of non-fiction that every college bound student should read. In fact, I wish I had read this book in High School as it would have lessened my struggle in the English courses I took during the undergraduate years.
Foster with his catchy chapter titles and a seemingly chatty writing style guides the reader through the 'language of reading' that would facilitate any future reading task that the reader may undertake, be it a Hemingway, a Wordsworth, or even a Junot Diaz. Foster flags conventions that are embedded in Literature which if the reader is made aware of could serve as a key to better understanding of a literary piece; Foster goes as far as to call it the 'grammar' of Literature. It is familiarity with these conventions and the grammar that sets apart a literature professor from his freshmen students. A professor has the advantage of having extended exposure to and practice in the conventions of Literature: a literary memory which comprises of a repertoire of literary symbols which facilitates pattern recognition. Once the student is made cognizant of these symbols and the patterns that exist the reading of literature will cease to be a formidable task.
Foster divides his book into chapters that flag some universal conventions of Literature and points out how they have been used by various writers across cultures and during different time periods. The chapter headings not only make for interesting reading, but also add to the understanding of these conventions. For example, "If it's Square, it's a Sonnet", "When in Doubt it's from Shakespeare or the Bible". Foster ends the book with a test of sorts that allows the reader to practice some of what he has learned in the book; Foster provides a reading, "A Test Case" from Katherine Mansfield and has you use your understanding of patterns and symbols to analyze the text. He then gives you two student interpretations of the reading and points out how the students have used their knowledge of patterns and symbols to comprehend the piece.
Clearly. Foster has spent long hours, years in a Literature classroom and wants to bridge the reading gap between him and his students sooner than it's happening. However, it may be a very simplistic solution he's offered in the book because there will be many pieces that may fall outside of the road map he's provided in these pages. Having said that, as an educator I feel this Foster's book could be a great start to college reading as it makes the reader aware of how vast a gap there exists between his reading and a Professors, and that in itself could be a great incentive for an average reader.
Here are some quoted highlights from the book that may lure you into reading this interesting and informative piece of non-fiction:
"The real reason for a quest is always self knowledge". (be it in Sophocles' "Oedipus" or Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" or Mark Twain's "Huck Finn")
"Whenever people eat or drink together, it's communion."
"There is no such thing as an original work of Literature.......there is only one story........intertextual dialogue deepens and enriches, bringing multiple layers of meaning to the text. "
"Myth is a body of story that matters........that is so deeply burrowed into our conciousness that readers may almost automatically consider it whenever 'flying' or 'falling' is invoked."
"It's never 'just' rain or snow...........if you want a character to be cleansed, symbolically, let him walk through the rain somewhere..........rain is also restorative....mysterious........snow is clean, stark, severe, inhospitable, inviting, playful, suffocating.......does well to remember, as one starts reading to check the weather."
"When writers send characters south, it is so they can run amok"