Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!


Stanley Kubrick Presents the Complete Works of James Joyce

As I recently finished reading a survey of Joyce’s writings, it occurred to me that each of his four majors works could be compared to the four major acts of Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in order.

= Dubliners

A critical care for presenting a realistic story gives us the first stage of the work.  The inhabitants of this place are frustrated and stunted.  The Kubrickian monolith is equivalent to the Joycean epiphany.  Ironically, where the epiphanies of Joyce only instigate paralysis, the monoliths of 2001 catalyze a quantum leap in evolution.

= A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Here we see a truly new style (or, at least, a recent style perfected)–Joyce’s stream of consciousness and Kubrick’s special effects ballet.  Each work is a seamless, totally integrated work of ambitious art, where every facet contributes to the whole united  message.  Each work, thematically and in its plot, is about man moving onward and upward.

Continue reading

Epic LOLs in Milton’s Paradise Lost

I’m reading John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, and what impresses me most (besides how aggressively macho Milton makes every detail—perhaps how Ray Bradbury would write if he were on steroids) is how funny it can often be.  Two scenes in Book 2 will demonstrate:

As the deposed demons discuss what to do about their infernal exile, Moloch (the John Wayne of the underworld) campaigns for another assault on heaven and an open war on God.  The more pragmatic Belial worries that the risks of God’s further wrath outweigh the rewards in that course, and says:

What if the breath that kindl’d those grim fires [ 170 ]

Awak’d should blow them into sevenfold rage

And plunge us in the flames? or from above

Should intermitted vengeance arm again

His red right hand to plague us? what if all

Her stores were open’d, and this Firmament [ 175 ]

Of Hell should spout her Cataracts of Fire,

Impendent horrors, threatning hideous fall

One day upon our heads; while we perhaps

Designing or exhorting glorious warr,

Caught in a fierie Tempest shall be hurl’d [ 180 ]

Each on his rock transfixt, the sport and prey

Of racking whirlwinds, or for ever sunk

Under yon boyling Ocean, wrapt in Chains;

There to converse with everlasting groans,

Unrespited, unpitied, unrepreevd, [ 185 ]

Ages of hopeless end; this would be worse [emphasis added]

That’s great—yes, infinite torture for eternity would be a mite bit worse than exile.  Those last four words strike me as a supreme sort of understatement.

Later, they all agree to Satan’s plan to look into this new  project God’s been working on—creating creatures called “humans” and settling them on a place called “Earth”—and see if there’s some way they can stick it to him by messing it up.  Continue reading

Recommended: How To Read Literature Like a Professor

13696347A 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!