Don’t Read like a Professor; Read like Yourself

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I’m always a little concerned with the state of affairs in the book world when the cover of a text needs to proudly (and generally, loudly) announce that they are indeed a New York Times Bestseller, persuading or tricking you to buy them and take them home with you. I am especially  concerned when, upon finishing the reading of said book, there is a very prevalent, painful stinging and stabbing within the gut that is neither indigestion nor anxiety. It generally only lasts a few days, particularly when the memory of what has been read begins to fade into the distant mist of the brain.

But that stinging is very real; it is the sting of disappointment that this text, out of the billions of words written every year, all of the excellent books written in the world… this text is the one that sold however many copies it takes to be deemed “bestselling” when it hardly seems deserving at all. Yet the disappointment is twofold; for me, the disappointment derives from my inability to find anything even slightly redeeming in a text- I can literally find nothing I enjoyed about it.

Such is the case with the 2003 nonfiction text by professor Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor. I don’t think I have found my education and my intelligence so insulted since reading Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado last year- Tirado’s text is truly the worst book I have ever read in my life, though I will preface it by saying that Foster’s work is at least 2 stars above Tirado’s. I can see the genuine attempt by Foster in this book whereas Tirado just wanted to perform a nonsensical rant for 300+ pages.

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In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Foster explores essentially the life of an English major; he reviews major concepts you learned in ninth grade, like symbolism, foreshadowing, the importance of time, season, and geography within a piece of fiction, etc., essentially teaching the reader how professors come to these wildly fascinating conclusions of what certain elements mean during literature classes. However, Foster reviews the bare minimum, barely dipping a toe into the deep dark blue that makes up the world of literary analysis and criticism. I feel safe to say that you probably already learned all he has to say during your four years in high school- none of this will surprise you at all.

As someone who studied literature, this book is insulting to me for several reasons. Perhaps the most revolting is the idea that everything a humanities student studies, reads, and analyzes can be reduced to simple parlour tricks, patterns and little games that one can learn quickly to get ahead and win the game of reading. The text makes it seem as if the professor magically knows the rules to all of literature, that he can simply pull these little tricks out of his hat at any moment during class, and you have to follow the rules laid out in this book in order to read like the elite class.

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Great- now there’s a kid’s version!

I argue that How to Read Literature Like a Professor actually does more harm than good to first time literature students because it serves as such a poor introduction to the vast literary world, particularly because Foster’s argument is contradictory. He resorts to depicting literary elements, themes, and texts like symbolism, archetypes, and the importance of Judeo-Christian theology as a backdrop for plot to pure simplicity, and not in a good way. He boils these ideas down to the bare bones so anyone can understand them, but then he specifically states that he does not take into account theory when studying literature, an enormous disservice to literature students who do, will, and should consider theory when reading and attempting to finish their degree.

Reading is easy; studying literature is not. Sometimes texts are difficult, boring, convoluted, or just plain terrible, and students are expected to successfully analyze these written words in a variety of modes at the drop of a hat.  I find it offensive that Professor Foster has painted these studies in such a way. that would make people think that reading like a professor is easy, something you can naturally pick up after reading this book.

It’s always great if one is trying to expand their own personal knowledge by reading lots of texts. But when it really comes down to it, who wants to read like a professor during their downtime? Read like yourself, not a professor.

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