A Review of Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor (by Bethany)

how to read literature like a professor cover image

Even a bookblogger needs a refresher course sometimes. I’ve found Thomas C. Foster’s books How to Read Literature Like a Professor and Twenty-Five Novels That Shaped America enormously helpful in my work as a teacher and as a reader. I read the former in 2007, shortly after I started teaching again after a three-year stint as an administrator, and it’s not unfair to say that Foster’s book helped me to decide what kind of teacher I wanted to become. Early in my career, I didn’t want my class discussions to focus on symbolism. My graduate program taught me to read for craft, not for symbolism and the sorts of things that are addressed in critical theory (topics I had covered well in my undergraduate education). In graduate school, we sometimes spent hours just looking at the implications of point of view, or at the way sets of details early in a novel set the stage for the resolution. When I started teaching high school, I didn’t think I would have trouble using this approach, since students usually learn about point of view and characterization and foreshadowing in middle school. However, my students weren’t ready to look at point of view and characterization at the level I had hoped (this method requires a LOT of time spent staring at pages in search of one specific detail or phrase), and since my students thought of these topics as middle-school material some of them were a little miffed that 1) we were covering these topics in high school classes, and 2) that their teacher seemed to think they were WRONG all the time. While my graduate school education changed me permanently as a reader, How to Read Literature Like a Professor really helped me put together a basic high school course in literary analysis, including some eye-rollers like the idea that all fishermen are Jesus – but also useful resources like the prevalence of symbolic baptism (any time someone gets wet – it sounds silly but it’s everywhere in literature) and the even more ubiquitous Eden imagery. A snake is never just a snake. There’s even a chapter on VAMPIRES.

Back then, Foster’s second book, How to Read Novels Like a Professor, interested me less because time was of the essence and this volume had less practical application to the class prep I was always so urgently doing, but when I reread it recently I enjoyed it a great deal. Foster devotes a lot of time to the specific ways that serial publication – the predominant way that novels were published throughout the 19th century – impacted what we still think of as the tropes of the form. For example, the extensive exposition and characterization and foreshadowing that we expect at the beginning of novels is left over from an era when it was common for 18-24 months to elapse between the time the first installment was published in a magazine and the novel’s final installment (this is the time when you get to point at me and say, Cough – The House of Mirth – Uncough). When serialization stopped being the dominant method by which novels were published, within just a few years novelists were experimenting with other ways of opening novels (and some remained true to the old ways too). When I reread Jane Eyre a couple of years ago, I mentioned that the opening of the novel seemed strangely modern, but I didn’t go into a lot of detail about what exactly I meant by “modern.” The opening of that novel tosses the reader right into a moment – a fairly ordinary one: a decision about going for a walk. It doesn’t begin with a first-person narrator introducing himself and his background, as Pip does in Great Expectations, nor did it begin with endless foreshadowing and details of setting, as you’ll find at the beginning of Bleak House. It just… begins. It’s the 19th-century equivalent of “Mrs. Dalloway decided that she would buy the flowers herself” – just a little bit ahead of its time.

This book delves into topics that Jill and I often discuss, such as the effects of long chapters versus short chapters (and of no chapters at all). Foster spends a lot of time on the various ways that writers end their novels, and he offers a very simple chart that could easily be the only resource a teacher could need for a high school honors or A.P. course. The chart has to do with the responses that authors want to elicit from their readers (with the rhetoric of novels, in other words). It looks like this:

Nineteenth century writers Twentieth century writers
Priority #1 Emotional Response Aesthetic Response
Priority #2 Intellectual Response Intellectual Response
Priority #3 Aesthetic Response Emotional Response

This chart is so simple – it’s even simpler than it looks when you realize that Priority #2 is the same in each column. But just think of the fun a teacher and a great group of students could have with just this chart and, say, Huck Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, The English Patient, If on a winter’s night a traveler, and Beloved. These titles are interchangeable with dozens of others, of course.

This book is effortless to read – because he writes like he lectures, Foster builds a great deal of tension in each chapter. His discoveries are our discoveries, and we feel his joy when he arrives at ideas that, like the best mathematical equations, are simple and perfect – like the chart above and many of the other ideas in the book as well.

I don’t read books about books very often, but Foster’s three such books come with my highest recommendation. If you are looking to become a better-informed reader (or teacher), of course I hope that your first step would be to read Postcards from Purgatory. This book, however, makes an excellent second choice.

This entry was posted in Authors, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Literary Studies, Reviews by Bethany, Thomas C. Foster, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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