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313 of 328 found the following review helpful:
friendly introduction to a deeper understanding of books Jan 27, 2004
The author is an English professor at the University of Michigan and it becomes apparent quite quickly that he is one of those popular professors who is chatty and has lots of students signing up for his introductory courses on literature. The language is friendly and the examples are entertaining as well as informative. If I lived in Flint, I'd take his classes.
There have been many times I've read a book and just *known* the author is trying to impart more than I am taking away from the prose, and I hear about symbolism in literature, yet I have very little success finding it on my own. One time in high school I had a very good English teacher who would point out the symbolism in stories and novels, but he never told us how to do it, as this book does. With chapters on a wide range of topics (journeys, meals, poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible, mythology, fairy tales, weather, geography, violence, politics, sex and illness, among others) and a wide variety of examples, I found myself learning A LOT. Certainly this would not be of much value to a literature graduate student or professor, but for the rest of us this is a great introduction to getting more out of our reading (or viewing, as the author also touches on film, though to a lesser extent).
The book concludes with a test, in which you read a short story and interpret it using the principles put forth by Professor Foster, then interpretations by several students and Foster himself -- delightful and illuminating! Finally, the author gives a suggested reading/viewing list and an index.
Two problems with the book: first, as I mentioned, the style of the author is conversational, but sometimes to the point of being distracting; secondly, the topics covered are quite idiosyncratic, leaving out as many as are included, though the author addresses this. Still, I give the book 5 out of 5 because it was entertaining, accessible and it has improved my understanding and appreciation of subsequent books I've read and even films I've seen.
187 of 195 found the following review helpful:
A Practical and Amusing Guide to Literature Mar 15, 2003
One thing's for certain: after finishing HOW TO READ LITERATURE LIKE A PROFESSOR, you will either praise the author for opening your eyes to the pleasures of literary analysis, or curse him for making you think too much. That's because Thomas C. Foster, a professor of English at the University of Michigan at Flint, gives his readers a lot to consider.
The short answer one comes away with is that nothing is as it appears to be. Symbolism is key. Weather, for example, is not just weather. Rain can be cleansing, cold is harsh but clean, wet is earthy and animal.
In case the reader doesn't quite get what Foster is saying, he succinctly states his meaning in a single, boldface sentence. "Myth is a body of the story that matters" reads one. "The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge" is another.
My favorite is, "There's no such thing as a wholly original work of literature," a theme that is repeated on several occasions. According to Foster, everything any author has ever read influences what he writes. Using the western film as an example, he suggests, "What's it about? A big showdown? High Noon. A gunslinger who retires? Shane. A lonely outpost during an uprising? Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - the woods are full of them . . ." Not that he blames writers for lack of originality: "You can't avoid [repetition], since even avoidance is a form of interaction. It's simply impossible to write . . . in a vacuum."
As previously mentioned, some chapters get slightly repetitive. "It's More Than Just Rain or Snow" has many features similar to "...And So Does Season," while "One Story" mirrors many aspects of "Now, Where Have I Seen Her Before." That's okay, though; some things bear repeating.
There's also a great deal of religious symbolism in literature. "Whenever people eat or drink together, it's Communion," Foster declares (again ensuring the reader gets the point). There are also plenty of male and female "Christ figures" and chapters like "If She Comes Up, Its Baptism" (i.e., emerging from the water equals rebirth).
"Don't Read With Your Eyes," a telling chapter in an age where certain people still seek to ban books, reminds us that present sensibilities might not always apply to the realities in which the story was written. Just look at all the uproar over THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN because some consider it politically incorrect. In Mark Twain's time, however, that was how people lived, spoke and felt.
With the first novel I tackled after HOW TO READ LITERATURE LIKE A PROFESSOR, I found myself looking under the rug and in the corners for meanings that may or may not exist. As the saying goes, "Sometimes a cigar is just a smoke." One of the problems college students encounter is the spiel their professors weave. "A moment occurs in this exchange between professor and student when each of us adopts a look," Foster explains. "My look says, 'What, you don't get it?' Theirs says, 'We don't get it. And we think you're making it up.'" But the author maintains that writers do consciously render these symbols when plying their craft. "Memory. Symbol. Pattern. These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd," he offers. Just how can us regular-Joe readers recognize all these possibilities? "Same way you get to Carnegie Hall," Foster cracks. "Practice."
--- Reviewed by Ron Kaplan
63 of 64 found the following review helpful:
Great for a wide range of readers Dec 18, 2003
I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. I generally stay away from these types of "how-to" guides, but this caught my eye at the library and I took a chance. Yes, in several places he does greatly reduce and simplify some of the headier, more complex issues in literature, but I think most readers will be prompted to build on his basic information on their own. As I was reading it I realized I would have loved it as an undergrad English major - especially when he was discussing early 20th Century works. This probably wouldn't have helped me in grad school as a student, but it would have helped me break down and better explain some concepts to the first year comp class I taught. I agree with a previous reviewer that the book is very unpretentious and Foster doesn't insert too much dry criticism here. Should be appealing to most beginning lit students and those who do some serious reading for their own enjoyment.
31 of 31 found the following review helpful:
Don't Judge a Book by it's Cover Oct 20, 2011
By John Kostic
How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster was an enjoyable book and is an easy read due to the author's lightheartedness. Before reading this book, I often read many books and saw many movies without the full understanding of what the writer was truly trying to say. Take the chapter about water being a way of cleansing. As soon as that idea clicked for me, I suddenly thought of the movie that Hilary Duff is in, A Cinderella Story, when the rain came down after the drought everything seemed to fix itself - Austin and Sam kissed and the mean Step-Mother was officially out of Sam's life. Because of this simple explanation in the book everything made sense now, the rain cleansed Sam of her problems so she was able to make up with Austin and things were right again. This is just one the ways reading this book has opened my eyes to the many different types of symbolism, which has helped me a lot in my understandings of stories.
Another plus for this book would be the interesting discussions that were held in my English class due to the sometimes questionable ideas Thomas C. Foster brought up. The main idea that kept coming up in our discussions would be the idea of no wholly original stories. At first this idea seemed easily answered, but upon further discovery, our class found the answer to be somewhat inconclusive due to opposing reasons. With the talk that Thomas C. Foster had aroused, it had our entire class really thinking, which is hard to do at eight o'clock in the morning.
Even though I found the book to be very insightful, there are some things that could have been better. Seeing as I am only a sophomore in High School, I am not a super experienced reader, and the amount of examples from real life texts that Thomas C. Foster gives us in the story is overwhelming. While the examples from real texts of what Foster was talking about in the chapter were helpful, I could not relate to them seeing as I had not read any of the books he continually talked about. He also gave too many examples, to the point where he was just rambling on and on. Foster even rambled on and on about simple topics that shouldn't have been given so much thought. Foster simply needs to work on being more concise.
Overall, I thought that the book was worth reading. At first glance of the book I thought it was going to be a waste of my time, but it turned out to help me more than I can explain. I have found myself being more involved with stories and actually understanding them, instead of going to my teacher or Spark notes for help. How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster is an informative and very helpful book that I would recommend to any reader.
172 of 195 found the following review helpful:
I'll have to be contrarian... Dec 15, 2003
In spite of others' praise, I have to say I don't think highly of the book. It seems rather obvious to point out that stories can't be entirely original and writers will write partly in response to what they have read, and create variations on themes, situations, and subjects -- but is it really enlightening to claim that there is only one story? This idea can only work if you reduce stories to "Somebody lived once. He or she did things and then died" -- which is not, of course, looking at a story on any meaningful level.
Similarly, the discussions of symbolism, etc., seemed shallow to me. All meals are not communions, and claiming that they are will alienate many thinking readers who recognize that. Does the author really think so poorly of his students to oversimplify in this way? It would be far better to talk about the resonances and suggestiveness of meals and eating, and include communion as a symbol in that group of associations. There is a huge difference between "x = y" and "x suggests y." I can very readily believe that he gets disbelieving looks from his students.
I found his cutesy writing to be very annoying -- such as "Guess what?" and "you-know-who" (meaning Shakespeare). Barf.
But worse, does he have a good command of what he's talking about? He says Henry V has his old friend Falstaff hanged, but this does not happen in the play. (Where was a knowledgeable editor? And why didn't those other professors who provided the rave reviews on the back cover & inside front of the book point this out to him? Linda Wagner Martin of UNC says "What a knowledge of modern literature! What good stories!" Another is James Shapiro, who, it seems, has written a book about Shakespeare.)
He claims "benighted" comes from Old English meaning "anyone darker than myself." This is flip and I think he believes that it's witty -- but it's also not even close to the meaning of the word, and therefore isn't particularly funny. The word has nothing to do with a person's color. "Benighted" actually meant "overtaken by darkness" (that is, as a traveler who has not reached his destination by nightfall) -- and, metaphorically by extension, being spiritually in the dark. [The "darker than myself" statement makes me wince to remember an English professor of mine who frequently just made things up as he went along; he apparently valued being entertaining more than he valued being accurate.]
These last points are not critically important, maybe, but they sure undermine his credibility
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