Type Book
Date 2003
Pages 314
Tags literature, nonfiction

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines

Introduction: How'd He Do That?

Sometimes things in literature mean more than they say on the surface. This applies not just to straightforward allusion and metaphor, but to the larger structure of stories, as well.

Chapter 1: Every Trip Is a Quest (Except When It's Not)

The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge. That's why questers are so often young, inexperienced, immature, sheltered. Forty-five-year-old men either have self-knowledge or they're never going to get it, while your average sixteen-to-seventeen-year-old kid is likely to have a long way to go in the self-knowledge department.

Chapter 2: Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion

Once or twice a semester at least, I will stop discussion of the story or play under consideration to intone (and I invariably intone in bold): whenever people eat or drink together, it's communion. For some reasons, this is often met with a slightly scandalized look, communion having for many readers one and only one meaning. While that meaning is very important, it is not the only one. Nor, for that matter, does Christianity have a lock on the practice. Nearly every religion has some liturgical or social ritual involving the coming together of the faithful to share sustenance. So I have to explain that just as intercourse has meanings other than sexual, or at least did at one time, so not all communions are holy. In fact, literary versions of communion can interpret the word in quite a variety of ways.

As with other broad, sweeping statements in this book, this is really overstated. He admits it himself: people take the word communion to mean something in particular, which isn't really quite what he means. And he's surprised when people look at him funny? In the broadest sense of the word communion, any time people come together for meals or anything else, even in the real world, it's communion, but that's not very useful to say, and so, by the principle of relevance, his students assume he means the more specialized (and at the same time more common!) religious definition. What he means to say is that no one would waste time writing a meal scene unless this coming together meant, symbolically, more than just a meal. At a minimum, it signifies that the characters consider themselves part of some group together--showing which may be the real point of the scene.

Chapter 3: Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires

But even today, when there are no limits on subject matter or treatment, writers still use ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and all manner of scary things to symbolize various aspects of our more common reality.

Try this for a dictum: ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires.

Here's where it gets a little tricky, though: the ghosts and vampires don't always have to appear in visible forms. Sometimes the really scary bloodsuckers are entirely human.

As with communion, this use of vampire seems to be mostly for shock value. The complex of ideas around vampires--largely sexual--isn't particularly connected to the general thesis in this chapter of 'supernatural things are symbols'. And even that is overstating things a bit--there are plenty of cases, particularly in genre fiction, where supernatural elements are not symbols to a greater extent than any corresponding element might be in a non-genre work. Of course, genre fiction does use these as symbols from time to time, e.g. The Ancient Mind at Work has a vampire--or perhaps only a rapist, but symbolically the two are one.

I'm not a fan of Foster's going for impact over precision. By all means, notice when some violent spirit is standing in for the violent impulse in humans, or whatever the case may be. But don't focus too much on the image of vampire, or you'll find interpretations that aren't in the text, and miss those that are.

Chapter 4: If It's Square, It's a Sonnet

Sonnets exist. You should know what they are.

Chapter 5: Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before?

All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again. Literature is intertextual. Characters get reused, plots get adapted, themes reappear over the centuries. Knowing where you've seen this before, as the chapter title prompts, gives you more avenues of understanding, more tools for analysis, and more enjoyment from your reading.

Chapter 6: When in Doubt, It's from Shakespeare...

Shakespeare is, like, suuuuper popular. He's awesome, and everyone has thought so for a thousand years or so, ever since Shakespeare was teaching his English classes about the best way to participle a gerund, and had the idea to invent iambic pentameter, which is responsible for making sonnets square.

Well, actually, this isn't a very useful chapter, unless you somehow didn't know that lots of stuff comes from Shakespeare. It's a torrent of examples of novels, films, and plays that have some kind of connection with the Immortal Bard, and a little mumbling about why there are so many ("because they're awesome!").

Chapter 7: ...Or the Bible

The bible is probably almost as famous as Shakespeare.

Chapter 8: Hanseldee and Greteldum

Fairy tales are also well-known.

Chapter 9: It's Greek to Me

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Greek myth is also well-known. Especially Homer.

Chapter 10: It's More Than Just Rain or Snow

Rain tends to be a symbol of rebirth and cleansing, but it can also be close and oppressive, dangerous--it can bring a flood, which might lead to its own kind of rebirth.

Other weather, too, has its hidden meanings. Fog can be confusion or uncertainty, and snow can serve many purposes.

Interlude: Does He Mean That?

Q: Do authors really put all that stuff in there?

A: Yes.

We cannot really know exactly what an author was thinking when writing, but in many cases we can make good guesses about authorial intent, and anyway what matters most is what we, the readers, can get out of or read into a work.

Chapter 11: ...More Than It's Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence

It's nearly impossible to generalize about the meanings of violence, except that there are generally more than one, and its range of possibilities is far larger than with something like rain or snow.

Chapter 12: Is That a Symbol?

Answer: "Sure it is."

Foster argues that most anything in a book might be a symbol. The problem isn't detecting symbolism, it's interpreting it. And the interpretation varies from reader to reader:

Every reader's experience of every work is unique, largely because each person will emphasize various elements to differing degrees, and those differences will cause certain features of the text to become more or less pronounced. We bring an individual history to our reading, a mix of previous readings, to be sure, but also a history that includes, but is not limited to, educational attainment, gender, race, class, faith, social involvement, and philosophical inclination. These factors will inevitably influence what we understand in our reading, and nowhere is this individuality clearer than in the matter of symbolism.

I am sympathetic to the theory that the meaning of a work is specific to the reader, and that symbols--and anything else--may have more than one valid interpretation.


Foster is blithely advancing a "there is no truth" point of view, here, and that is... facile, to say the least. Is everything a symbol? Sure, all of literature is nothing but a big string of symbols. Words aren't things.

But we do assign typical and less-typical meaning to words and to collections of words. To the majority of realistic utterances, situated within their contexts, most proficient speakers of the language will assign broadly similar meanings. That's a lot of qualifiers, but in short, most people can agree about the meaning of most things.

That's what a language is. If there weren't broad agreement about the meanings of words, we wouldn't have a shared lexicon, so we couldn't communicate. If there weren't broad agreement about grammar, then we couldn't assign semantic value to the relationships between words, and our communication would be extremely limited.

The lexicon of symbols isn't so different from the lexicon of any other sort of language. If you've ever read an explanation of some symbol in a book and said "yeah, that makes sense", then you've got your proof right there. And Foster more or less admits as much: he prescribes a method of interpretation dependent on this. Think of all the meanings something might have, and then decide which one makes sense in context. Brilliant strategy, that.

Getting a broad-enough selection of "meanings something might have" means opening your mind a bit, and that set is theoretically unlimited, but practically we certainly can decide on, if not the interpretation, an interpretation that is likely to be acceptable to other humans.

I suppose that it's the mind-expanding that Foster is trying to encourage here, really, but he's not going about it in the most efficient way. If you're not already prepared to accept that it's okay to arrive at an interpretation that the author might not have intended, I don't think you'll be convinced by this chapter.

Chapter 13: It's All Political

Most literature has political elements, whether explicit or implicit. Those works that are designed with a political purpose, such as to support or excoriate a particular current or prospective institution, might age badly, while those that address the causes of political issues, the fundamental elements of society and human nature that give rise to the social realities addressed by politics, may be of enduring interest.

Chapter 14: Yes, She's a Christ Figure, Too

Christianity being popular as it is, Christ figures abound. Foster suggests some common traits that might indicate a character may be taken as a Christ figure.

What this chapter lacks, as do many others, is the important motivating question: So what?

Is this person a Christ figure? "Works for me," says Foster. The follow-up to that should be: if so, then what does that give us? What new directions does it open up for criticism? What new ways of understanding does it enable? In short, why do we care? Aristotle tells us "that whose presence or absence makes nothing evident is no part of the whole."1 If being a Christ figure doesn't contribute anything, then it's meaningless.

Name Role
HarperCollins Publisher
Thomas C. Foster Author