Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Memory, Symbols, and Patterns to Create Meaning
Throughout the book, Foster explores different references, pattern-making strategies, and symbols, each of which creates a deeper level of meaning in pieces of literature. For example, in discussing literature’s memory, he explores the body of stories that often make up literary references, including Shakespeare, the Bible, mythology, and fairy tales. By exploring how, why, when, and to what effect authors include references to these archetypal stories in their texts, readers can begin to understand not only the specific meaning of a single text but the larger sense of dialogue between texts over time. The same is true of symbols, and Foster explores some of the most common symbols used in writing and traces how their meaning has both solidified and changed throughout history. For example, in exploring the symbolic nature of vampires, Foster illustrates how the figure of the vampire has changed since the Victorian era. While earlier vampires were an expression of fear of sexual desire and possession, modern vampires have grown into romantic figures, pined-after by teenage protagonists like Bella Swan in the Twilight series and Buffy in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series. This change represents a larger shift in attitudes about sex, desire, and self-control. By reading closely, Foster models how to create meaning by paying close attention to these components in literature.
The Personal Nature of Literary Interpretation
Throughout the book, Foster emphasizes that literary interpretation is deeply personal. Though How to Read Literature Like a Professor provides a generalized framework for readers to begin to interpret literature on a deeper level, it’s not meant to be a prescriptive guide. There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to interpreting a symbol, naming a pattern, or unpacking a literary reference. Though symbols cannot mean anything, they also rarely mean a single thing. For example, a literary sheep probably does have symbolic meaning related to a racecar driver’s career behind the wheel. But a reader can choose from a host of meanings that are closely associated with the sheep, such as new beginnings, spring, being a follower, or lacking differentiation from the herd. Foster notes also that each text teaches the reader how to read it, so in order for readers to meet the text on its own terms, they need not search for correct answers or follow the line of thinking laid out by critics and professors. Instead, each reader can suss out their own interpretations based solely on their reading, their past experiences, and their own imagination.
The Interplay Between the Reader's and the Writer's Imaginations
The book also explores the interplay between the reader and writer’s imaginations, making the point that reading itself is a creative act. That means that when a reader is interacting with a book, they bring their own ideas, experiences, previous readings, dreams, and interpretations to the book. The writer isn’t imparting an imagined world on the blank slate of the reader, but instead the reader creates their own version of the book through the act of reading. That means that when readers are examining symbols, interpreting patterns, and making connections with other texts, they engage their symbolic imaginations, their own pattern-making skills, and their previous experiences with literature. The result of this interplay is twofold. One, every act of reading is creative, meaning that every book is different for every reader. And two, every book must be read both on its own terms and on the terms of individual readers. This dance is part of the magic of reading and part of why determining the deeper meaning of a text is such a powerful and mysterious act.