Foster describes teaching Raisin in the Sun to his class, who balks at the idea that one of the main characters of the play, Mr. Linder, is the devil. He illustrates how Mr. Linder offers Lee Younger, the protagonist of the play, financial help to buy a home. In order to gain this assistance, Lee Younger, a Black man, has to admit that he’s not equal to the white residents in the neighborhood. Foster describes this offer as a bargain with the devil, a trope that’s often used in literature to describe situations in which a character gives up their soul for something that they badly want. Instead of selling his soul, Younger is asked to trade in his identity and self-respect.
To explain how he comes to this interpretation of Raisin in the Sun, Foster defines the language of reading as understanding the conventions, patterns, and rules of written text. He compares this to the language of art, such as how in Western art, perspective is a vital aspect of painting, while in Japanese art is often uninterested in perspective. He then returns to the language of literature, explaining that the reader would anticipate this return, given that he’d introduced the subject and then given a different example. The reader knows he will return to the language of literature because of the conventions of essays.
Foster describes many conventions of literature, such as characters, plot rhythms, and point of view. He also describes how professors of literature rely on memory, symbol, and pattern to reveal the hidden depths of literature. Memory gives these readers a mental Rolodex of previous titles read and helps reveal connections between pieces of literature. By looking at the symbolic nature of many aspects of a piece of literature, professors access the deeper meaning within their reading. And pattern recognition allows professorial readers to understand the deeper patterns that imbue literature with meaning. Memory, symbolic readings, and pattern recognition all work together to help these advanced readers hone their interpretations of literature. Foster explains that the goal of the book is to teach readers how to read at a professorial level.
1. Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)
Foster makes up a story about a kid named Kip. Kip goes to the store to get Wonder Bread for his mom. There, he encounters a scary German Shephard and his rival, who is hanging out with a girl he likes in a nice car. As Kip reaches for the Wonder Bread, he decides to enlist in the army immediately. Foster argues that any English professor would recognize that Kip is a knight on a quest. A quest has five key elements: a quester, a place to go, a reason to go there, challenges and trials on the way, and the real, hidden reason for the quest. Foster argues that the real reason for the quest is always self-knowledge. For example, Kip realizes that he wants to start the next chapter of his life immediately and not wait around for a girl to notice him.
Foster analyzes The Crying of Lot 49 to illustrate the elements of a quest. The quester is Oedipa, a young woman who isn’t very happy in her life. The place she is going is Southern California, and she often travels back and forth between San Francisco and Southern California. The stated reason for her journey is that she is the executor of her former lover’s will. The trials and challenges she faces include strange, scary, and dangerous people. The real reason that she’s going on the journey is to discover and depend on herself rather than the men in her life.
Foster begins his introduction with a discussion of A Raisin in the Sun to model the dialogue between student and professor that defines the structure of How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Foster makes this structure of dialogue between student and teacher clear in the introduction, setting an expectation for the structure of the rest of the novel. Throughout the book, Foster is constantly moving between two voices: one, the voice of the author, the professorial voice, who embodies the experienced, thoughtful, expert reader, and two, the voice of the student, who questions and interrogates how the professor draws conclusions. The format of the book is somewhat Socratic, with Foster modelling the kinds of questions that students may ask, such as “How can I learn to recognize literary conventions?” and “How do you know that?” He then goes about answering the imagined student questions and in doing creates a comprehensive model for how to read literature at a more advanced level.
Foster also models literary analysis in his introduction in order to illustrate the larger points he is making about how to read like a professor. When he is talking about the language of reading, he interrupts his analysis to compare it to the language of art. He then returns to the language of reading, pointing out that he interrupted himself but that readers would anticipate he would return to his discussion of the language of reading. In this way, Foster engages in a meta-analysis of his own essay-in-progress, illustrating for readers how expectations and literary conventions come into play in their own reading. This method of self-interruption helps readers identify how they already have familiarity with certain conventions of readings and that their own expectations can guide them to decipher meaning as they read. This is a technique that Foster uses throughout the book to draw attention to the mental processes within a reader as they are reading.
Foster uses the made-up story about Kip to create a simplified version of an archetypal quest. This strategy is a pedagogical technique that allows him to model a student-professor discussion and to present the components of a quest in their most pared-down forms. While the discussion of real texts, such as The Crying of Lot 49, is more robust and complex, the discussion of Kip’s story boils the quest journey down to just the essentials. The story also allows Foster to illustrate that a quest need not be grand or epic and that quests can range from simple, everyday actions to epic Arthurian adventures. This allows readers to expand their view of what a quest might be and recognize a hero’s journey even in stories of the mundane or simple. Foster also uses Kip’s story to spotlight the crux of the archetypal quest, which is that the stated purpose of the journey is less important than the self-knowledge gained along the way. By spotlighting a simple grocery store trip, Foster leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind that the true purpose of Kip’s journey must be deeper.