How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Introduction


In his introduction, Thomas Foster sets out for the reader reasons why the book was written, and why it might prove to be helpful to the reader of literature. How To Read Literature Like an English Professor is an instructional guide that hopes to enrich the reading experience by pointing out cues that make a work of literature what it is. The introduction is thus an overall summary of these cues, as well as an account of the techniques of interpretation and analysis employed by Professors and professional students of literature.

Foster opens the chapter by recalling a classroom experience where the students couldn't understand why and how he had reached a certain conclusion about a character in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Foster's primary intent in referencing this text and its characters Mr. Lindner and Walter Lee Young is to show how many layers of meaning are often embedded in a text. Although A Raisin in the Sun is set in 20th century Chicago, the characters and plot of this modernist American play contain traces of a German legend that dates back to the 15th century (if not older). Such a connection is not apparent to Foster's students, however, which is why they are surprised when their Professor draws parallels to the Faust legend and bargains with the devil. Yet Foster argues that his theory is not unfounded, and in explaining the connections, demonstrates the complexity contained in a single literary work.

In light of such complexity literary analysis requires a certain amount of effort and training that is not immediately at hand to the beginner reader or student of literature. Foster explains this by arguing that a literary work has its own set of grammar or rules, much the same way that language itself has. The experienced reader or Professor has, over time, and through extensive reading, learnt to identify the codes and conventions and patterns that make up these rules. The way to learn to identify these cues is simply to practice - reading more and more works and becoming aware of the underlying principles that guide works of literature.

Foster distinguishes between the beginner reader and the experienced one by comparing their reading experience - the former reacts to the book or text on an affective level, also called the response level, where the reader reacts emotionally or instinctively to events, characters and development. The experienced reader on the other hand, in addition to experiencing the affective response to a work, also remains cognizant of other elements at play, asking questions such as "Where did that effect come from? Whom does this character resemble? Where have I seen this situation before?" (p xv, Introduction).

According to Foster command over three key features of literary works is what distinguishes the professional from the novice: memory, symbol and pattern. Memory involves recollection of previous works studies or read that might spur the reader to make connections between works, symbolism is a mantra that prevents the reader from taking things merely on face value, whilst identification of patterns within a work enable the reader to distance him/herself from the text even as they engage with it, to take a broader and clearer perspective of things.

In addition to these techniques, Foster explains his intention to further elucidate features of writing that would help the reader understand a text in a much deeper sense than he/she might otherwise have without prior knowledge of how literature works.


Foster's guide works on the premise that literature, like sciences or social sciences, requires a certain set of skills and 'training' in order to be best appreciated. While this impression is perhaps unsurprising from an academic point of view, How To Read, as the title suggests, is directed towards readers of literary works in general. It is not wholly clear who Foster's readers are - whether he intends the work to be used primarily by students across fields or anyone interested in picking up a book. This distinction is important, for it has implications on how one should regard literature, its role and purpose, or at least how the author regard the field.

The idea that one should "learn" how to read literature is not without its critics - Alan Jacobs, scholar of literature and literary critic has challenged the view that one has to develop a professionally trained eye in order to attain richer levels of reading experience. Author of The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction, Jacobs emphasizes the value of reading for one's own sake and pleasure - and seems to privilege the "affective" or "response level" of reading that Foster encourages readers to move beyond. The debate is complex, and not easily resolved, but it is significant for the reader of How To Read to understand the perspective and judgments that its author carries regarding the discipline of literature.

The opening of Foster's introduction - with a recollection of a classroom experience with students - is characteristic of the style the author has adopted throughout the work. The personal and directly engaging tone is undoubtedly deliberate, intending to fulfill the promise that the title carries of being a "lively and entertaining guide." Indeed reviewers and teachers have often focused on this quality of the writing in their praise for Foster's work - the jocular and informal style makes the text more accessible for the young student or reader.

Yet the informality or liveliness of the narrative voice cannot be said to apply to the work in its entirety - during analyses and explications of literary works and techniques Foster often presents arguments in a more formal manner, frequently employing literary jargon. How accessible the book truly is for its reader is thus largely contingent on the reader's own comfort in interacting with the text.

Foster's elucidation of the three key techniques that are important for meaningful literary analysis (memory, symbol, pattern) draws heavily on the theme of intertextuality. Intertextuality is used to refer to ways in which a text gains meaning by referencing or evoking other texts, what Foster calls "a dialogue" between works of literature. Often intertextual features work as subthemes or double narratives in a work. Knowingly or unwittingly writing is closely interconnected, and because of this network of literary production tools such as memory, symbolism and pattern can be applied to considerable effect. If one actively learns to keep in mind the texts read before and draw parallels whenever encountering a new work in addition to analyzing the material contained in the work itself, then it is possible to better understand what the text stands for and hone one's analytical skills.