Review of How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster

Non-fiction is not known for it’s riveting covers.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster. ★★

First off, I would not have picked this up (and certainly not read all of it) if it hadn’t been assigned reading for school. I have little interest in reading a book on how to read, and the idea itself strikes me as nonsensical.

What How to Read Literature turned out to be was pages and pages of examples from books I’d never read before. If your point is “near drowning often represents baptism and rebirth” why can’t you just say that once? Is there really need for an entire chapter on it?

I think this would have worked better as an outline than a book. Instead of a chapter, you could have the “look out for this when you’re reading” suggestion, which was all I really needed anyway. The numerous lengthy examples could all be listed below this main point.

I don’t know how much I can fault what you chose to reference for examples. While I would have liked for him to use texts that high schools students would actually have read, I will acknowledge that high school students were not his intended audience. In the introduction, he made it clear that he was writing for adult students returning to college and is completely surprised that his book is mainly read by high school students who have it assigned as summer reading. So maybe he was assuming that adult college students have read a lot of classics? Or maybe he didn’t care that his readers likely won’t share his joy of Toni Morrison?

Which is another thing. He uses the same books for examples over and over and over again, and each time, he has to remind you what it is, who it’s by, and the basic plot. Like it hadn’t already been discussed in the previous chapter.

Occasionally, just occasionally, he’ll make a brief reference to something modern and popular. Like, in the chapter on physical deformities being meaningful he says something along the lines of “oh, yes, you can bet that Harry Potter’s scar means something” and then goes right back to talking about older and less familiar works. He had a golden opportunity here! He could have used an example from something that the vast majority of his audience would have read or at least seen the movie of! But he doesn’t!

Another instance, in his reading list at the end of the book, he includes Life of Pie as an example of a heroic quest story. Would have been nice if he’d used that one in the chapter on quest stories.

He had some good points, but possibly not enough for a novel. He should have tried some more diverse examples instead of using the same few authors over and over again. I couldn’t recommend this one for anyone but English teachers.

This review pars down the book into a cheat sheet of all the points Foster was making. It’s possibly more valuable than reading the book itself.


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