Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a work of pedagogical nonfiction in which the author breaks down some of the most common components of analytical reading skills. Exploring memory, pattern recognition, and symbolism, Foster models close readings of classic texts in order to illustrate how readers may delve more deeply into texts and elucidate the meaning under the surface of the text. The book is broken down into chapters that are arranged by patterns, literary references, or commonly explored symbols. Common patterns can be the components of a literary quest, literary references often refer to the Bible, fairy tales, mythology, or Shakespeare, while commonly explored symbols are sex, violence, disease, weather, and seasons. Each chapter can stand on its own, but Foster is concerned throughout with irony, the interplay between the reader and the writer’s imaginations, and his belief that the whole of literature—and history and human experience—is part of one, constantly unfolding story.
Foster introduces his philosophy on reading in his introduction, modeling how he teaches close readings of texts and helps students understand that there’s more to what they read than plot and character development. For example, he illustrates how he came to the conclusion that Mr. Linder is the Devil in A Raisin in the Sun, and how he models that knowledge for his students. The first three chapters explore some common structures and themes that appear in literature, beginning with the quest or hero’s journey. The first chapter covers the components of a typical quest in literature and models how to identify quest using examples from Arthurian legend and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Eating is central in the next two chapters, as Foster explores both the communion inherent in sharing a meal together in literature and the destruction of being consumed. Both meals and monsters can be used to express taboo subjects, such as sex; it was necessary to allude to sex in coded ways for much of the history of literature.
Foster spends some time discussing stories that are often referenced in other stories, exploring Shakespeare, the Bible, fairy tales and Greek and Roman mythology in detail. In each of these chapters, he does a close reading of classic texts to illustrate how these stories show up in overt and subtle ways. He returns to both mythology and religious imagery in later chapters about heroes’ friends and Christ figures.
Moving on to the way setting can imbue literature with deeper meaning, Foster explores the weather, geography, and season. These chapters illustrate that place, weather, and season have deeply ingrained resonances. Rain may evoke a sense of renewal or sadness, winter a closeness with death. Writers often draw on or play with these expected resonances, and paying attention to these markers of setting can open up a text for readers.
Exploring how more taboo and difficult subjects manifest in literature, Foster delves into violence, politics, and sex, suggesting that rarely do these subjects emerge in literature without having significance beyond the superficial. For example, since sex scenes have often been coded, a savvy reader must read between the lines in pre-modern works and spot the hidden sex scene from the crash of waves on the ocean or the abundance of phallic objects. Violence can represent deeper social rifts, as can explicit sex scenes, which often are about something other than sex, too.
Foster also includes a series of chapters about physical differences and illness. While physical differences, such as a childhood injury or a prominent scar, can mark a character for greatness, illness can often represent a moral or character failing. For example, Harry Potter’s scar reflects that he is exceptional, both because it physically sets him apart and because he got the scar by surviving an attack on his life as an infant. Disease in a text often reflects a character flaw or deep emotional problem, such as the main character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Man of Adamant” whose heart physically turns to stone when he withdraws from the world to live alone in a cave.
Foster also intersperses reading advice throughout chapters and interludes in the book. He explores the role of irony, which often upends a straightforward interpretation of many of the conventions discussed. He encourages readers to expand their perspective by considering the specific historic and cultural periods that authors wrote from. And he continually notes that all stories are part of one larger story, which is ongoing and still being written. He ends by encouraging readers to draw from their own interpretation, trust their instincts, and continue to read widely.