By the time students reach college, they have taken several years of English courses and are expected to speak, write and read the language with ease. Yet, many students still have trouble reading classic literature, often missing the deeper literary meaning of the stories.
To help readers understand and enjoy literature, Thomas Foster, an English professor at the University of Michigan-Flint with more than 30 years of experience and expertise, wrote How to Read Literature Like a Professor. The book serves as an entertaining guide to introduce readers to literary basics, including symbols, themes and settings.
Foster notes that no literature is completely original and that all literature grows out of other literature. There are certain works of writing that almost all authors have read, such as the Shakespeare corpus, the Bible and The Odyssey. Authors are inspired by these famous works and use them as inspiration for their own stories, sometimes consciously and other times subconsciously.
Foster advises readers to look for glimpses of familiar stories and ask what the two texts have in common. To find an example of inspiration from a famous work, one can look at Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Old Man and The Sea. Hemingway writes about a poor, old fisherman who remains good and pure despite facing hard times. The man goes on a three-day fishing trip during which he experiences a great deal of suffering and injuries while attempting to hook a large fish. When he returns to the port, he goes to bed and lays his arms as if crucified. The next morning, people see his large fish and start to believe in the fisherman’s skill once again.
Although Hemingway has a subtler narrative, it is clear that the fisherman is meant to be a Christ-like figure. Foster uses this example to show that text in literature can have a deeper meaning. For example, consider the seasons and weather. More often than not, if an author tells readers it is a warm summer day, the author is trying convey a specific message. Foster writes that spring is associated with youth and childhood, summer with romance and adulthood, fall with decline and middle age, and winter with resentment and old age.
Furthermore, Foster notes that sometimes readers have to be careful of certain symbols because they might have more than one meaning. Rain in a story can signify rebirth through baptism or destruction through floods.
Toward the end of the book, Foster encourages readers to use what they learned by analyzing a short story. Foster then asks readers to compare their notes to his own. He points out several of the hidden meanings that readers may have missed. Foster’s book serves as a wonderful nonfiction literary guide that aids readers in their engagement with literature.
In the famous poem “The Divine Comedy,” Dante has Virgil to guide him through his journey; for readers of literature, there is Foster.