“How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas C. Foster

Cover of "How to Read Literature Like a P...
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Step into the classroom with Professor Foster and learn to read between the lines of the next story, play, or poem you pick up.

I wish I had this book while an undergrad. I should have thought to buy it sooner. Usually I would see it in the store but would bypass it because I thought it would be boring. Obviously, it’s a professor who wrote it and professors are usually boring when they discuss literature and whatnot, especially when they write about it, so this book would also be boring, I reasoned. I was so wrong.

I took a few literature classes by professors who were so excited about the books they discussed, I couldn’t help getting caught up in their excitement and wanting to read the text as they do. They made it seem fun – intellectual fun. So I went out and bought How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster and threw it on my bedroom floor and left it there for a couple months.

One day, I stumbled on it as I was rushing into my room. I then decided to read it. Ha! I thought. This dude is freaking hilarious. Books like this should always be funny or a bit silly at least. It’s the best way to learn something that has the potential to bore a student to death.

It was hard to put this book down and not just because of the jokes. I was learning so much. The conversational tone that Foster employs makes this book an easy read. While reading, I felt as if I was in the class of a somewhat eccentric professor who cannot hide his love for literature. Foster’s strong interest in his topic is expressed through the pages to the readers, making them want to think more as they read. Foster wants his readers, and his students, to not only read for simple enjoyment but also for intellectual fulfillment.

To point his readers in the right direction, Foster highlights a few key elements that are helpful when reading like a professor. These elements are listed in the table of contents as comical phrases that point to the chapters that detail them.

Part of the reason why I enjoyed reading this book is because of its structure. While discussing elements that are helpful to bear in mind while reading, Foster also includes the supposed reactions of his readers/students. That makes for a comical read since the reactions are always in disbelief. It’s exactly as students react in a class. We are always wondering if the teacher is trying to pull a fast one on us. Is he for real? Is all that going on in the text or is he just making things up as he goes along?

A great example of this is in the first, three paragraphs of the interlude, ‘Does He Mean That?’:

“Along about now you should be asking a question, something like this: you keep saying that the writer is alluding to this obscure work and using that symbol or following some pattern or other that I never heard of, but does he really intend to do that? Can anyone really have all that going on in his head at one time?

Now that is an excellent question. I only wish I had an excellent answer, something pithy and substantive, maybe with a little alliteration, but instead I have one that’s merely short.


That section came after the first, ten chapters of the book which covers diverse topics from how to identify a quest – ‘Every Trip Is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)’ – to the source of all literature – ‘When in Doubt, It’s From Shakespeare’; ‘…Or the Bible’. As you can see, the chapter titles are hilarious.

The chapter that stood out to me was ‘Is That a Symbol?’ which is a reoccurring question whenever I read classics. It’s easy for me to notice the symbols, most times, but I can hardly explain its significance to the text because I always believe my interpretation to be wrong. Instead, I try to figure out what the professor would want me to think it means, since the professor always knows the correct interpretation.

However, according to Foster, “a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing…we want it to mean some thing, one thing for all of us and for all time” (98-99).

Such is as I believed prior to reading Foster’s book. I thought symbols could only be interpreted as meaning one thing and I would always get that thing wrong. “But,” states Foster, “that handiness [one meaning for symbols] would result in a net loss: the novel would cease to be what it is, a network of meanings and significations that permits a nearly limitless range of possible interpretations” (99).

According to Foster, “if we want to figure out what a symbol might mean, we have to use a variety of tools on it: questions, experience, and preexisting knowledge” (100). Since each person brings a different set/type of tools to the text, there will be diverse interpretations for the symbol. I appreciated this chapter. It was reassuring; I am not at a total loss when it comes to interpreting symbols.

I will treasure this book. Foster discusses his points simply, which makes his lessons easier to grasp. Obviously he wants the readers to understand what he writes. Usually books such as this are so complicated that it’s hard to understand what the author is trying to say much less grasp the lesson he is trying to teach.

This is a book that all readers, not just students, and writers should consider reading. Not only will you learn to read like a professor, but Foster will provoke you to think deeper as you read to discover the magic of literature. After all, to read intellectually is to discover the possibilities of the text and to do that, the reader’s “imagination engages with that of the author,” which is amazing since the author may not be anywhere near the reader, or “may have been dead for thousands of years” (123).

Read Next: How to Read Novels Like a Professor ->


11 thoughts on ““How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas C. Foster

  1. I also bought this book and it is currently on my books shelf. Guess I need to pick it up and get reading, sounds great!


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