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How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Linesby Thomas C. Foster
In a sense, this is a car pool book. For years, a colleague and I have spent our commute talking about the day's upcoming teaching. We discuss the stories or poems or plays or novels under consideration in our classes, often with slightly dismissive gestures about the routine observations we plan to make later on. Then, on the way home, we sometimes find ourselves reviewing the day's work with a certain amazement at what has transpired in class. What surprises us is that things we take for granted, things that seem almost ordinary to us turn out to be the most astonishing and even unbelievable revelations for our students. It sometimes seems as if, while we're all reading the same works, we're not talking about them in the same language.
One of the beauties of literature is that everyone can read it at his or her own level. If we each go into our local bookseller and buy a copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (we'll know we're reading great literature that way), I can be sure of a few things. One is that you will finish well before I do; I'm a very slow reader. Another is that we will each find much to amuse, please, entertain, frustrate, alarm, annoy, and gratify us. A third is that we'll each wonder if there were things we missed, if there might be more going on there than we noticed or grasped.
The answer is, yes, of course we missed things. A work of literature is a bit like a labyrinth, an almost-infinite series of paths: we can't travel all of them simultaneously and some of them we may never discover. What we can try to do is work through as many possibilities as we can, to be alert to the interplay of symbol and theme, image and character, idea and structure.
Most readers, I believe, are curious. Some really mean it when they say, "I only read for the plot," and that's great. A lot of readers, though, want more. Having taken in the pleasure of character and event — and I think we all want that pleasure — they perceive that there may be more to a literary work than that.
What How to Read Literature Like a Professor offers to those readers is a set of tools for satisfying their curiosity, a look at how an English professor cracks open a novel, poem, or play, investigates it, experiences it, understands it, so that anyone — novice, student, or book club reader — can take up a text and try using those tools themselves. In this book, you'll meet writers from all centuries and encounter texts from all genres, not only prose and poetry, but plays, movies, song lyrics, cartoons. We'll talk about the various symbols and encodings, some more common, some less obvious, and see if we can make sense of them. And finally, we'll look at the way the writer's — and the reader's — symbolic imagination informs and shapes the work, and how a new piece of writing engages in a dialogue with all the literature that came before it.
Mostly, though, we'll have a good time. Out in public, literature professors have to be serious and scholarly, speaking of this theory or that concept, but that's just because we're afraid that if anyone ever finds out how much fun we have doing our jobs, they won't want to pay us. Nor is the enjoyment lessened by knowing more about how books are put together. Quite the opposite, in fact; the more I discover about what makes novels and poems and plays and stories mean what they do, the more pleasure I find in reading them. I hope you'll find that pleasure, too.
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