How to Read Novels Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Thomas C. Foster’s excellent book  How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines elucidates literary analysis like no other text I have read. It clarifies the sometimes difficult task of interpretation and making meaning. It has an excellent recommended reading list, and it is indispensable for English teachers. I absolutely loved it. I didn’t enjoy its “sequel,” How to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form nearly as much.

Let’s start with what I liked:

  • The motif, which runs throughout the book, of the reader as creator. Reading is a creative act. Books demand that we have an imagination. It reminds me very much of something I heard Jasper Fforde say about reading when I went to a book signing. Foster says, “readers are the ultimate arbiters of meaning in a work” (126). I agree with him, and it’s one of the things that can be difficult about teaching English. English teachers are often experienced readers who understand the ways in which texts talk to one another and speak the language of symbolism and metaphor. Students, who are less experienced, often become infuriated when a teacher makes a connection or interpretation that the student didn’t make, and English teachers are often wrongly accused of inventing intentions the author never had. The author’s intentions do not matter once the reader reads the books. We readers bring so much experience, prior reading, belief, opinion, and knowledge to everything we read, that no two readers read the same book, and no reader reads the same book the author wrote. I really like it that Foster explained the importance of the reader so clearly because it is a real issue whenever two readers disagree about a book.
  • I like Foster’s breakdown of 18 things we can tell about a book on the first page. It is a great guide for students who struggle with annotation. If you can point students to look for style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, narrative presence, narrative attitude, time frame, time management, place, motif, theme, irony, rhythm, pace, expectations, character, and instructions on how to read the novel (whew!), then you will have paved the way for them to better understand the novel and help them figure out what to look for when they read. Eighteen is a bit much, but I found as I scanned the list that I agreed that most, if not all, of these elements can be determined to some degree on the first page of the novel.
  • I am fond of telling students that literature is the mirror that we hold up to examine our world and to ourselves. It tells us who we are and what we want. Foster expresses a similar sentiment: “So almost any novel can teach us, and the novel has one big lesson that lies at its very root: we matter. A human life has value not because it belongs to an owner, a ruler, a collective, or a political party, but because it exists as itself” (115). As such, characters in novels matter because they are us. We see ourselves in them. We see our humanity in their humanity.

Now to what I didn’t like:

  • The book is repetitive. Foster discusses the same books, pretty much over and over, and if, for some reason, you are unfamiliar with one of his pet texts or if you didn’t like it for some reason, it’s hard to connect to what Foster is saying—or it was for me. Your mileage may vary. I don’t much like Joyce. There, I said it. I did give him a try. I guess I prefer my novels to be more like the great Victorian novels Foster describes. I am not opposed to Postmodernism here or there, and I don’t have to travel with the characters in a straight line. But Joyce doesn’t do it for me. I like it that Foster acknowledges we have different reactions to novels. Towards the end of the book, he describes a discussion with a high school English class in which one lone dissenter admitted he didn’t like Great Expectations. Of this student, Foster says, “It takes courage, to say you’re in AP English and aren’t wild about one of the established classics. For one thing, there’s the weight of more than a century of received opinion going against you” (292-293). Yes. True. I do not like Ulysses. I tried to read it. I was grossed out on page one. I gave it up. And that is OK, though the “weight of [nearly] a century of received opinion” is going against me. But he’s a favorite of Foster’s (not surprising, as he seems to be a favorite of many college profs), and he is used as an example over and over and over. And since I didn’t grok Ulysses, I didn’t find myself connecting to those examples very well.
  • I think Foster’s definition of theme is off, and I wouldn’t recommend sharing it verbatim with students. Foster defines it as “the idea content of the novel” (30). When I teach it, I tend to take it further than that. What message did you get from the novel? Deeper than what it is about—why did the author write it? We can’t know that, of course, but we can extrapolate. Did F. Scott Fitzgerald write The Great Gatsby because he wanted to comment on how the American Dream is not achievable by all, and maybe that it is even dead or never existed in the first place? I don’t know, but that is a message I receive from it when I read it. Certainly different readers will see different themes. But I don’t find the definition “idea content” to be all that helpful.
  • Likewise, Foster describes different kinds of narration on pp. 46-47. I teach students first person, third person omniscient, and third person limited. I mention second person as a type of narration they will rarely encounter. That’s it. And I discovered that there are these other types called third person objective, first person central, and first person secondary, which, as Foster describes them, seem like splitting hairs unnecessarily. He also puts stream of consciousness in there, which is not a type of narration, but a narrative technique. And he even says it’s not a kind of narrator, so I find it confusing that he puts it in this list at all. It doesn’t belong there.
  • The book has no index. How to Read Literature Like a Professor has a great index. It made finding information so much easier.
  • The book doesn’t have a recommended reading list. There is a list of other literary criticism to read, but in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster shared a list of great literary works to read. I liked it. I suppose he figured the list of all the novels he mentioned in the book should do, but I liked the list in the other book.
  • Foster’s appeal lies to a great degree in his entertaining style. He cracks jokes. He’s snarky. For some reason, it was fun in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In How to Read Novels like a Professor, I found it less appealing, and occasionally off-putting.

This book is worth it for the discussion of reading as a creative act and intertextuality, but aside from that, it doesn’t bring much to the table that wasn’t captured better in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I highly recommend that book, and I would recommend it far above How to Read Novels Like a Professor.

This review is cross-posted from my book blog because I thought it might appeal to English teachers.

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