How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Quotes and Analysis

"In literature there is no better, no more lyrical, no more perfectly metaphorical illness than heart disease."

Foster (p 208, Chapter 23)

Here the author describes how heart disease is a favorite trope employed by writers because of its rather straightforward nature, as well as the implications inherent in the act. As the seat of emotion, and even character, the heart becomes symbolic of several themes of significance to personality and life. A heart disease is not only a quick and easy way to dispose off characters writers want killed, but it is also a meaningful one.

" soon as we notice blindness and sight as thematic components of a work, more and more related images and phrases emerge in the text."

Foster (p 203, Chapter 22)

Foster stresses the symbolism and meaning attached to a blind character in a work of literature. Writers choose to blind characters for more than the simple reason of highlighting the phenomenon of blindness - considerable complexity is attached with this condition which requires a shift in perspective not only of the blind figure in question, but all those around him who have to change or act in ways that consider this characteristic.

Blindness is heavily metaphorical and for this reason is often associated with issues of truth, light, understanding and so forth. Related imagery can include shadows, darkness, obscurity, words/writing, hearing, etc.

"...irony works because the audience understands something that eludes one or more of the characters" .

Foster (p 240, Chapter 26)

If a work makes use of irony, then the reader should be careful not to take things at face value. Indeed, as the quote suggests, irony often involves a realization or message that is distinct from what is traditionally thought or expected.

When a work is written in an ironic mode then often characters in the story are unable to realize reality for what it is or understand consequences of their actions/behavior/comprehension. In this case they have less independence or free will than might otherwise exist in a work that is not ironical and where the audience is more or less on the same page as the character.

"Never feel dumb. Not knowing who or what is ignorance, which is no sin; ignorance is simply the measure of what you haven't got to yet."

Foster (p 283, Appendix Reading List)

In his concluding statements Foster points out how engagement with literature and our position as professional readers is an ongoing process. We will never be able to exhaust the literary conventions that exist nor perhaps know all cases of symbolism yet that ignorance should never deter us from studying more literature, or reading more books. There is something to be gained from each reading, and even the most professional of literary scholars stand to learn something new each time they interact with a text or author.

"Instead try to find a reading perspective that allows for sympathy with the historical moment of the story, that understands the text as having been written against its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background."

Foster (p 228, Chapter 25)

Foster explains the importance of contextualizing a work of literature when attempting to understand its possible layers of meaning or analyzing it. It is important, in other words, for readers not to be blinded by their present contexts and worldview - for the conditions in which the author of the work penned the story was likely quite distinct from the ones we currently experience. Doing so would lead to greater insights into the text, and allow for a richer interaction.

Foster also cautions against adopting a completely impartial perspective - he stresses that instinctive responses during initial readings are just as, if not the most, important in leading to subsequent analysis and deeper engagement. One has to learn, however, to maintain a balance between recognizing one's personal responses and considering the period and environment in which the work was compiled.

"That one story that has been going on forever is all around us. We - as readers or writers, tellers or listeners - understand each other, we share knowledge of the structures of our myths, we comprehend the logic of symbols, largely because we have access to the same swirl of story"

Foster (p 192, Interlude)

Much of Foster's book is based on the premise that ultimately, there is only one story about the experience of being human. Literature, in other words, is an attempt to present, capture, and narrate the experience of living in this world, how we behave, what meaning we give to the elements around us, how we are influenced in turn by the world we are residing in, and so on. Because we have among us different tribes, people, communities rather than a single nation or race, this experience of being human is multifaceted and complex. As a result different variations of this single story inevitably exist.

These variations that can be contained in storytelling or myth, have transcended boundaries since the beginning of time and the more enduring or popular ones have becomes ingrained in our collective consciousness. As a result while we might encounter different texts or stories, because of our shared experience as humans as well as this collective consciousness, we can relate and make sense of the narrations we come across. Part of learning to become a professional reader, for Foster, is simply learning to be more attuned and conscious of these large traditions of which we are a part.

"What we mean in speaking of "myth" in general is story, the ability of story to explain ourselves to ourselves in ways that physics, philosophy, mathematics, chemistry - all very highly useful and informative in their own right - can't. That explanation takes the shape of stories that are deeply ingrained in our group memory, that shape our culture and are in turn shaped by it, that constitute a way of seeing by which we read the world, and, ultimately, ourselves."

Foster (p 65, Chapter 9)

"Myth" as used by Foster does not refer to a belief or story that is untrue. Rather, it is used in the book to identify an established tradition of narrations (oral or written) that comment upon human experiences and lives. Through tales, myths can help us see and understand our lives in ways that traditional sciences may not allow.

Foster is specifically referring to a kind of myth that has endured over the centuries. Because of its popularity, or other historic factors, this myth has become so closely tied to our social fabric that we grow up with them often without realizing that we do. Examples of such enduring traditions or body of stories include Biblical mythology, Greco-Roman traditions, Shakespearean stories and so forth. A student of literature would benefit from a familiarity and recognition of such myths because of how heavily literature - at least Western and European literature - is indebted to it.

"That world contains many things, and on the level of society, part of what it contains is the political reality of the time - power structures, relations among classes, issues of justice and rights, interactions between the sexes and among various racial and ethnic constituencies."

Foster (p 115, Chapter 13)

Foster encourages readers to consider literature as a political work. He defends this position by pointing out how literature is inevitably a commentary on the world we live, and since our societies, lives, and environments are strongly affected by politics, so too is literature. Politics here doesn't have to refer to the ruling political party or the state of the assembly/congress; politics makes its way in institutions such as the judiciary, law, even in relationships between sex, races, and classes. Thus, a story that focuses on the differences between the upper and lower classes of a society also tell us, if implicitly, the type of political ideology and interests that are upheld in the country/region.

"In a sense, every story or poem is a vacation, and every writer has to ask, every time, Where is this one taking place?"

Foster (p 163-164, Chapter 19)

Geography matters in literature because setting is one of the most important decisions that a writer takes when compiling his story. This conscious selection of place means that the setting in question has some significance whether historic, geographical, social, or other. Whether a narrative is set in a war-down city or in a prairie invariably affects the story that emerges. Each location has its own implications - the South with its tropical climates might suggest laid-back, undeveloped, poor whilst mountains might suggest exclusivity, isolation, coldness, inspiring and so forth. Setting or geography then makes a story as much as its characters or narration do, and it is worth considering possible significance of the place where this story is taking place.

"We have to bring our imaginations to bear on a story if we are to see all its possibilities; otherwise it's just about somebody who did something."

Foster (p 123, Chapter 14)

Here Foster points out how literary elements often don't fall into neat categories – different writers, for instance, can manipulate symbols and archetypes in different ways. If a text contains allusions to a Christ figure then one should not expect the corresponding character in the text to embody all, or even most of the qualities traditionally associated with this archetype. A writer may simply choose to focus on highlighting the character's sense of benevolence, or sacrifice, when drawing parallels between the two figures rather than in making the character embody all saintly qualities. This then is what the author describes as "seeing" all possibilities inherent in a literary work, and being open minded enough if we come across a striking image or characteristic so as to create room for both the writer's, as well as our own, creative imaginations.