A couple of weeks ago I woke up and the first thing I thought about was Thomas Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professor. Now, I had heard of this book and seen a copy when it came out in 2003, but hadn’t actually read it, or even thought about it since then.
Who knows why neurons run around the way they do, or what makes certain synapses fire in any particular way? I’ll never know what was going on in that blob of gray matter in my skull that morning that made it call to attention first thing upon awaking the title of an obscure book that I’d only tangentially encountered several years before.
For whatever reason it happened, I found the thought strong and portentous enough to pick up a copy at the library.
I enjoyed it even more than I thought I would, finding Foster’s explication of basic analytical tools phrased casually, but with enough clarity and examples to make it very useful. My pride would like to say that I already knew everything that Foster pointed out, but the truth is that I learned a lot. Though I did think of a lot of examples besides the ones he used, I discovered new approaches to favorite works (Joyce is one of his primary touchstones) and was introduced to works both classic and contemporary that I haven’t read yet, but now want to put on my to-do list.
The chapters are all very short, and the first several are just to establish the biggest, most foundational aspects of narrative—quests, communion, etc. As the book continues, he gives us simple, useful definitions for a couple of dozen literary devices, all accompanied by a few pitch-perfect examples, and all told in a friendly style that neither irritates with excessive “cuteness,” nor bores with pedantry. Every so often, Foster throws out a pop culture reference or a slangy joke, but he doesn’t point neon signs at them, and he smoothly segues back into business. He keeps the pace brisk and the tone breezy, yet still manages to include heaping helpings of trivia and typical English department jargon (the book ends with a fun little section called “envoi,” which he defines and then proceeds to give us a cheerful modern example, of his own creation). All is as it should be.
Yes, this should be required reading for all book clubs and lit. majors, but it should really be enjoyed by everyone who enjoys reading and wants to get as much out of it as possible. Foster’s guide to analyzing literature is a success in every way a reader would want it to be.
Fair notice: I intend to steal some bits from the “test case” chapter for my own classes!