The introduction begins in Foster’s college classroom, where he and the students are discussing Lorraine Hansbery’s play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Students are often shocked when Foster suggests that the character of Mr. Lindner represents the devil, and that when the protagonist, Walter Lee Younger, considers Mr. Lindner’s offer to buy out Younger’s claim on his house, this is the narrative trope of making a “deal with the devil.” Foster explains that this trope stretches back throughout Western literary culture, for example in the many versions of the Faust legend. Unlike in Faust, however, A Raisin in the Sun portrays Younger as refusing to make the deal and sell his soul to the devil. Hansberry thus employs an archetypical storyline but adds her own twist.
Throughout the book, Foster shows that he understands students’ skepticism to the literary analysis he presents. By showing step-by-step how he reaches the conclusion that Mr. Lindner represents the devil, Foster allows the reader to better understand how this kind of “deep reading” works. Indeed, this one example of analysis includes symbol, archetype, myth, intertextuality, and religious imagery, all of which will be explained in the chapters to come.
When a professor suggests an interpretation of a work of literature that students feel is unreasonable, this is a “communication problem.” Although it might seem like the professor is inventing interpretations with no real evidence, in fact he or she is simply using the “language of reading.” This language is a method of talking about literature in an analytic manner, “a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules.” The language of reading is arbitrary, but so is any language, and indeed any artistic convention deemed important within a particular culture.
Foster’s characterization of misunderstandings between students and professors as a “communication problem” is important. The problem is not that professors are more intelligent or sophisticated thinkers than students, but rather that they are simply employing a different language. If students familiarize themselves with that language, then they too will be able to read like professors.
The best way to understand this language of reading is simply through practice. When the average person reads, they are primarily interested in following the plot and letting the story affect them on an emotional level. When professors read, they may have an emotional response to the text, but their focus is on how the text works. This means they will be seeking out patterns, symbols, references, and other literary devices. While neither method of reading is right or wrong, reading like a professor will ultimately make engaging with literature a deeper, more satisfying experience.
This passage explains the distinction between surface reading and deep reading. Note that deep reading is not only a more complicated practice, but also a productive one; it includes creating something (an interpretation), as opposed to passively consuming the writer’s words. Although some people claim that deep reading makes literature less enjoyable, Foster argues the opposite, suggesting that deep reading makes for a better experience.
There are three key elements of reading that separate professors of literature from the lay reader: memory, symbol, and pattern. Professors are constantly searching for “correspondences and corollaries” with other texts, and will assume elements of a text have symbolic meaning, rather than waiting for this to be proven beyond doubt. Pattern recognition, meanwhile, requires stepping back from the “foreground” of the text in order to analyze its structure and identify repetition, pace, archetype, and other devices at work.
Memory, symbol, and pattern are three of the most important words in the book. Although they work together, they are all distinct, and require different skills. This means that even if a reader has a poor memory, for example, he or she could still produce excellent literary analysis by mastering the art of recognizing symbols or viewing literature in a structural way.
Foster presents an example of the way that “the symbolic mind” can work not only when reading a work of literature but also in real life situations. Say you meet a man who hates his father and seems overly-attached to his mother; then you meet another man who exhibits the exact same qualities, and then another, and another. The symbolic imagination will allow you identify this man as a “type,” and employing the language of reading and your knowledge of literature may help you identify this type as related to the “Oedipus complex” (the subconscious sexual desire for one parent and hatred/jealousy of the other). Indeed, Sigmund Freud invented the Oedipus complex by “reading” his patients like a professor reads a work of literature––namely, by seeking out patterns, symbols, and correlations. With training and practice, everyone can perfect these skills and use them to come to their own conclusions about literature and life.
This passage serves as a great example of the way reading like a professor comes in handy outside of the classroom. The “symbolic imagination” helps people not only to recognize patterns in literature, but also in real life, thereby creating a deeper understanding of the world around us. The example of Sigmund Freud proves that the “language of reading” is also useful in other disciplines. These connections help to show the value in literary scholarship, and remind the reader that literature does not exist in a vacuum, but in a constant dialogue with life and society.