How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Tale of Two Takes


In How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster makes the point that you can make your everyday reading experience more rewarding and enjoyable by looking more closely at what you are reading and finding symbols and themes, along with other similar devices. Foster writes that when the average reader reads a book they focus on the story and the characters. They respond to their reading on an emotional level.

“Writers tend to be men and women who are interested in the world around them. That world contains many things, and on the level of society, part of what it contains is the political reality of the time – power structures, relations among classes, issues of justice and rights, interactions between the sexes and among various racial and ethnic constituencies.”

When a reader takes the time to read more closely looking for significance, symbolism, theme, meaning, pretty much anything except character and plot the reader has an added depth to the experience.

IMG_5741I first read How to Read Literature Like a Professor probably about 5 or 6 years ago. I was very intrigued by the idea of getting more out of my reading and  becoming a “serious” reader. As I picked up this book to read again, now 6 years after the original reading, I started the book not quite as intrigued at getting more out of my reading because I realized in the 6 years since the original reading I am not any closer to employing any of the skills he taught. I didn’t feel that during that time my reading had suffered, I felt that I had read some great books and had gotten a lot out of them. So on my second read I was much more skeptical. In reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor I have discovered that I read a book for the emotional experience I have. I love having all the emotional responses that reading often brings, rage, laughter, crying, peace. I read to get a look into other people’s lives. I love to people watch and I feel a book is just like people watching only you get more than what you are observing in one moment of time. I love to read to learn more about people that are different then I am and try to understand them. I feel that reading helps me to develop empathy for people whose lives are different than my own because I can see why people make the choices they make and I realize I don’t have all the details so judging is pointless. These are the some of the reasons I love to read.

As I read How to Read literature Like a Professor I kept thinking that reading for depth over the emotional journey takes all the fun out of the experience. Instead of going along for the ride you have to keep stopping and figure out why the ride is there in the first place. I also am not convinced that in writing a book an author isn’t also writing to provide an emotional experience but is wanting the reader to dig through every word to find meaning that is hidden. I don’t think authors always hide what it is they want to say. Also reading closely takes too much work. I don’t watch very much TV. Reading is the way I relax. I don’t want to be working when I relax. When I read a book and someone drowns, I don’t want to stop and wonder what that means. If someone drowns, then I get to experience the emotions that come with the drowning. If the character is able to get out of the water then I get to experience the emotions that come with a rescue or maybe it just means the character can swim. A great book for me brings out emotion, makes me feel. I think that looking for meanings, reading closely, is forcing that emotion to happen.


As both a casual reader and a future professor, I enjoy How to Read Literature Like a Professor  by Thomas Foster because it is the basis of how and why I read.

“When an English professor reads, on the other hand, he [or she] will accept the effective response level of the story, but a lot of his [or her] attention will be engaged by other elements of the novel? Where did that effect come from? Whom does this character resemble? Where have I seen this situation before? . . . If you learn to ask these questions, to see literary texts through these glasses, you will read and understand literature in a new light, and it’ll become more interesting and fun.” (xxvii)

I first read How to Read during the summer before my high school AP Literature course, back when I thought I knew everything about literature. So it was interesting to return to the revised edition just months after my graduation and see if Foster held up after I learned directly from professors how to read. And it does, so much so that I wished I had reread the book more seriously for my introductory English courses, because the concepts I had such a difficult time are laid out clearly. These concepts include ideas like what Fosters calls “the grammar of literature,” that literature, like any art form, has a kind of code or set of conventions which can be identified and then analyzed for meaning. It was understanding literature on a deeper level that took me from a casual reader who didn’t know what was so important about a wheelbarrow in the rain to a scholar-of-sorts.

IMG_5742 (1)This being said, not everyone reads like this, and that’s okay. Foster, while being an engaging and lively voice, is an academic and values analysis as a fundamental part of his reading style. Not everyone wants to read the Greek classics just so they can understand something they’re reading from this decade or use words like “intertextuality.” Not everyone needs to recognize every allusion the author makes in a work, or understanding the minute historical underpinnings of a text. And that’s okay. We need different kinds of readers, just as we need different kind of writers and artists and consumers and so on. However, I read the way that I read “like a professor” (though that probably gives me more credit that I deserve) because I enjoy it. I enjoy consuming a text, and then picking at the bones for the hidden bits of meat. I enjoy finding a snag in a booksomething that doesn’t make sense to me—using that to formulate a question, and then trying to find the answer to that question in the book (and it is my fervent belief that the best of literature poses difficult questions). I enjoy experiencing the emotions a poem gives me, and then going back to understand how the poem impacted me the way that it did. I enjoy finding meaning in works that reflect a world that sometimes feels meaningless.

So if you find yourself in my camp of close readers, Foster may have something new to show you about the (not-so) secretive world of literary criticism. Or, at the very least, some patterns he reveals may conjure up new meaning in a familiar book and set you on a fulfilling path of closer reading.

Have you read How to Read Literature Like a Professor?How do you read, more like Michele or Kennerley? What book captures your personal reading philosophy? What books from high school English would you revisit? Let us know in the comments! And stick around: book reviews to come every Tuesday and Friday. 

3 thoughts on “How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Tale of Two Takes

  1. I love this! Fascinating thoughts on how we read. I’m a huge re-reader, most books I own I’ve read more than once. I find that I get different things from each re-reading, and it can depend on my mood and my environment just as much as whether I’m deliberately approaching it thoughtfully.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love re-reading my books as well (they get well-worn at my house). I’ve found the best books are ones that I want to reread as soon as I’ve finished. Any suggestions for your favorite rereads? Thanks for commenting!


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