How To Read Literature Like A Professor

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 April, 2003, 12:00am

by Thomas C Foster

Quill $130

What is Hamlet reading in Act 2, Scene 2? To Polonius who asks him, he replies, 'words, words, words'. Had he been a professor of English literature he might have said, 'symbols, symbols, symbols'. The gist of Thomas C Foster's book is that literary works have a kind of code of their own. When lay readers pick up a novel they focus on the story and the characters, responding emotionally to what they encounter.

But when an English professor reads, his attention is engaged by conventions, patterns and rules. His inner dialogue might be asking: what does this represent? Whom does this character resemble? Where have I seen this situation before? Didn't Dante (or Chaucer, or Merle Haggard) say that? Consider Grendel, the monster in the medieval epic Beowulf. He can be seen as a scary beast, or as a metaphor for something else, perhaps a symbol of the hostility of the universe towards man, or perhaps of the darkness in human nature.

Everything in literature is more than what it appears to be. When Hagar in Toni Morrison's Song Of Solomon gets caught in a rainstorm, she doesn't just get wet: she is cleansed of her illusions. Richard III's hunchback is a visual representation of his moral and spiritual deformity. A road only ever exists so the protagonist can embark on a journey of self-knowledge that parallels his physical journey, as it does in Jack Kerouac's On The Road and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Ditto for the ocean in Herman Melville's Moby Dick and the Mississippi in Mark Twain's The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. (The exception to this is the road in Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot, but the fact that Didi and Gogo don't go on a journey is the whole point.) 'It's All About Sex', is the title of one chapter, and 'Except Sex' is the title of the next. 'Drives you crazy, doesn't it?' Foster says.

'When they're writing about other things, they really mean sex, and when they write about sex, they really mean something else. If they write about sex and they mean strictly sex, we have a word for that. Pornography.' If you read enough you begin to see references to earlier texts in new work.

'One of the great things about being a professor of English is you get to keep meeting old friends,' says Foster. 'For beginning readers, though, every story may seem new, and the resulting experience of reading is highly disjointed.'

Foster avoids jargon and sprinkles his text with groan-inducing jokes to keep it light, but I couldn't help feeling some unease with his approach. It was all too reminiscent of the painting-by-numbers style of high school teaching that does more to turn young people off literature than nurture a love of reading. Foster even finishes with a test - you are asked to interpret a short story and then compare your conclusions with his and his students'. (All conclusions are valid, but Foster's are more valid than yours, apparently.)

Nevertheless, there's a lot to be said for having a firm grasp of the nuts and bolts of literary analysis, and Foster lays it out in such detail that even experienced readers are bound to learn something. Reading like a professor of literature might not be the only way to tackle a book, but it is one way, and this is how it's done.