Non-Fiction: “How to Read Literature LIke a Professor” by Thomas C. Foster

After I read From London With Love, I started reading Desire Never Dies, which was the second title in that triad. But I must admit: I also started reading that book about the Duke of Bradford that I said I was going to sell back without reading it. Remember, guys: I’m a masochist.

[I’ll talk more about it once I finish it, but … it’s bad. On so many levels. The good news is that some of the bad parts are also funny parts that made me laugh out loud. But they’re not redeeming enough to make me change my mind about getting it out of my new house once I’m done with it.]

So while I read those two trashy romance novels, I started reading this title as my Lunch Break Book. I didn’t make a conscious decision to read it. Sometimes, when I’m reading a romance novel, I’ll use the Lunch Break Book as overcompensation for the guilty pleasure I’m reading behind the scenes. (Ooh, that sounded dirtier than I had intended.) Like, while I was reading Breaking Dawn at home, I was reading The Maltese Falcon at work, a) of all because I didn’t want my friends teasing me, but b) of all, I was writing a pulp-esque novel at the time and wanted to hear how true, old-fashioned pulp sounded. Also, c) of all, it’s considered a classic and I hadn’t read it up to that point. With How to Read Literature Like a Professor, it was the top book on one of the piles I was packing up, so instead of saying “I’m going to read this because I enjoy reading literature and I enjoy learning how to do it better,” it was more like “SHIT I can’t read historical romance porn in public, people will make fun of me OH LOOK THIS WILL PROBABLY WORK — yoink.”

It was a very interesting read, but I’m not going to get into it in depth. As someone who’s taken a number of English courses, I’ve run into many of the symbols Prof. Foster describes before. Some of my favorite chapters dealt with Shakespeare, vampires, and irony. What I really liked about this book was that, after all the chapters talking about the different symbols and references stories and novels could make, there is then a short story reprinted in the back and he asks the reader to explicate it: to figure out what the story is trying to discuss through the language. It’s an interesting exercise; one I remember well from some of my English classes. He then gives three examples of how to answer the question, ensuring that unless we’re talking about a symbol that didn’t show up anywhere in the story, that there is no wrong answers. At the end of the exercise, Prof. Foster says this:

So what does the story signify, then? Many things. It offers critique of the class system, a story of initiation into the adult world of sex and death, an amusing examination of family dynamics, and a touching portrait of a child struggling to establish herself as an independent entity in the face of nearly overwhelming parental influence.

What else could we ask of a simple little story? [277]

What else indeed?

One recurring theme throughout the book was that there is no such thing as an original story. Meaning, you can certainly write a novel that has never been written before, but there will be elements in your story that reflect on elements found in other novels. If you write a scene where a family has a big, important dinner, odds are you’re writing a scene of communion. If you’re writing about vampires, odds are you’re using vampires as a symbol for something else – usually, it’s a symbol for things that suck the life out of your characters. Rain means fertility, swimming is a version of baptism, and everything means “sex” but sex means something else. And above all, irony trumps everything.

In the section on diseases and what they symbolize, Prof. Foster gives me my new favorite principle:

Please observe that in most works where blindness is manifest, the writer brings it up pretty early. I call this “the Indiana Jones principle”: if you want your audience to know something important about your character (or your work at large), introduce it early, before you need it. Say we’re two-thirds of the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark and suddenly Indy, who has heretofore been afraid of absolutely nothing, is terrified of snakes. Do we buy that? Of course not. That’s why Steven Spielberg, the director, and Lawrence Kasdan, the writer, installed that snake in the airplane right in the first sequence, before the credits so that when we get to the seven thousand snakes, we’ll know just how badly they frighten their hero. [205]

A couple of things. First and foremost, THANK YOU for not calling it Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I can’t express properly how happy you made me, Prof. Foster, for not calling it that. IT’S RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, SPIELBERG. STOP ADDING “INDIANA JONES” ONTO EVERYTHING. (ahem.) Secondofly, I do want to point out — as someone who has DEFINITELY watched Raiders of the Lost Ark more than I have read Oedipus Rex — that technically, that scene is after the credits. The credits roll as Indy leads Sapito and the rest of his crew to the temple, and by the time he’s whipping the spiders off of Sapito’s back, the credits are done. Thirdly, I’d like to make the distinction between the Indiana Jones Principle and Chekov’s Gun. The former is specifically about either a character or the work at large; Chekov’s Gun is an item introduced in the first act that will be the catalyst for either action or resolution in the third act. Of course now, I can’t for the life of me remember what I was watching, but I was watching something and they had a ridiculous Chekov’s Something. Damn. That’s going to bother me.

I think it was really good for me to read this, because if anything, it will help me with my writing. I don’t really read a lot of literature anymore (Great Expectations notwithstanding), and the novels that I do read for the most part aren’t trying to say something else underneath. But when I write, I’m constantly nervous about unintentionally plagiarizing, even though I know the order that I’m putting the words into is mine. But did I steal this scene from TV? Is my reference no longer a reference? These are some of the questions I think in my head when I write.

The other thing this book did was give me a to-read list. He mentioned a book multiple times that I definitely need to read at one point: Wise Children by Angela Carter. There are references to the Bible and Shakespeare, tons of symbolism … it sounds like a nice, dense read. He also gives an appendix at the end of the novel of both books to read and movies to watch — the movies because they’re like novels for your eyes that you don’t have to actually read. The Indiana Jones trilogy was on the Movies to Watch list — note that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was not included. For good reason – that’s not really a movie. (And for more on that, stay tuned over at Movies Alaina’s Never Seen for one hell of a diatribe.)

Other books he recommends we read:

T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1917), The Waste Land (1922). Eliot more than any other person changed the face of modern poetry. Formal experimentation, spiritual teaching, social commentary.

Okay, but I’ve read “Love Song” like, ten times, and I still don’t understand what it’s trying to say. No, don’t tell me, I know it’s beautiful (like an urn and truth), and I don’t have to understand the meaning to know it’s art.

Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary (1999). A comic tale of modern womanhood, replete with dieting, dating, angst, and self-help — and an intertextual companion to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813).

Bridget Jones’s Diary is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m so excited that he mentioned this book!

Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897). What, you need a reason?

YOU DON’T NEED A REASON. DO IT. DOOO IT.

And under the Master Class section, a paragraph I wish I’d read three months ago:

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861). Life, death, love, hate, dashed hopes, revenge, bitterness, redemption, suffering, graveyards, fens, scary lawyers, criminals, crazy old women, cadaverous wedding cakes. This book has everything except spontaneous human combustion (that’s in Bleak House — really). Now, how can you not read it?

Bleak House has spontaneous human combustion!? I did not get that far when I read it in my 19th Century British Novel class! (Nor did I get that far in the Gillian Anderson miniseries, apparently.)

Great. Another 1000-page book to read.

Grade for How to Read Literature Like a Professor: 4 stars

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