Foster introduces the book by explaining that it was intended for adult learners and other non-traditional college students new to the practice of literary analysis. It was a huge surprise, therefore, that the book became so popular in high schools and was even put on the AP Literature syllabus. Foster begins his explanation of how professors read by noting the resistance most students have to “professional” ways of reading. It might seem as though the professor is simply pulling analysis out of thin air, when in fact he or she has just mastered the “language of reading,” a set of tools and conventions that allow scholars to engage with literature on a deeper and more complex level. The three key elements of the language of reading are memory, symbol, and pattern.
Foster proposes the idea that every journey depicted in a work of literature can be seen as a quest, even an ordinary trip to the grocery store. The important part of a quest isn’t the swords and dragons, but rather the character’s path to self-knowledge. Similarly, every time characters eat together is an act of communion—not in the traditional Christian sense necessarily, but in the sense of engaging in a ritual of sharing that creates a temporary community around the meal.
Vampires are a major phenomenon in literature, but the reason for this is not simply to scare readers. Rather, vampire stories are usually stories about sexuality, with the vampire figure symbolizing a sexual predator pursuing an innocent, virginal victim. The same characters, symbols, plots, and themes occur across different works of literature because no work of literature is ever completely original. Indeed, it is possible to think of all literature as relating back to “one story,” that has exists across time and space.
Arguably the most important figure in English literature is William Shakespeare. The Elizabethan playwright has had a singular influence on subsequent authors and on the development of English language, and allusions to his work are ubiquitous in literature. The Bible is another major influence on literature; a text doesn’t have to be religious in order to be filled with Biblical symbolism and imagery. Other important influences include fairy tale and Greek myth. Stories from these genres are deeply imbedded within our collective cultural imagination and surface within literature in both direct and indirect ways.
In the first interlude, Foster admits that it may be hard to believe that authors deliberately create so many layers of meaning within their work. However, just because we can never have certain knowledge of an author’s intentions doesn’t make the search for complex symbolic and intertextual meaning any less legitimate. Descriptions of the weather in literature, for instance, are never accidental; they always have symbolic significance.
Like the weather, depictions of violence in literature also always have symbolic meaning. This includes violence that characters enact on one another as well as authorial or narrative violence, meaning events that kill or harm characters in order to advance the plot. Foster moves on from the chapter on violence to discuss symbolism more generally. Pretty much everything in a work of literature can be read as a symbol, though things rarely have only one symbolic meaning (if they did, they would not be symbols, but allegory).
Foster distinguishes between two kinds of political literature—works whose main purpose is to advance a direct, historically-specific political agenda, and literature that is “political” in a more general sense, meaning it is produced in a specific political climate by an author with a particular relationship to the world around them. Under this second definition, almost all literature is political, at least to some degree.
Having introduced the notion that literature is filled with Biblical symbolism, Foster points out the importance of the Christ figure in literature, noting that Christ figures often come in surprising forms. Flying is also a particularly important literary device, and is almost always related to the concept of freedom.
While it might seem that English professors are unduly obsessed with reading sexual subtext in the most unlikely circumstances, there are good reasons for this. Throughout most of history, authors could not depict sexuality explicitly in their writing without being censored for obscenity. As a result, authors tend to depict sexuality in indirect ways. Another important reason for the importance of sexual subtext is the influence on literary scholarship of Sigmund Freud. Foster warns the reader, however, that when sex is explicitly depicted in literature, these depictions—like those of the weather and violence—almost always have symbolic meaning beyond the sexual act itself.
Returning to the theme of Christian imagery, Foster points out the trope of characters emerging from water, an event that symbolizes baptism. Foster then moves on to discuss how geography—the features of the landscape in which a given literary work takes place—tends to be associated with certain conventions of meaning. The same goes for seasons; although authors tend to play around with the meaning of seasons in an ironic way, this is facilitated by the pre-existing conventional significance of seasons, such as the association between spring and rebirth.
The second interlude returns to the idea of the “one story.” Foster argues that our culture is full of interrelated stories, and that by infusing their work with references to these stories authors create a sense of richness. Following this interlude, Foster moves on to discuss the way that physical abnormalities convey information about the characters who have them, particularly in texts written during the time in which people associated these physical marks with moral deficiency. Blindness in particular has a special legacy in literature, with physical blindness often used as a metaphor for lack of self-awareness or foresight. Similarly, illness usually indicates a problem not only within a character’s physical body but also within their soul; depictions of heart disease are thus extremely common in literature, as the heart has long been considered the core of human emotion.
In the next chapter, Foster highlights the importance of suspending one’s own personal, historical perspective in order to engage with a work of literature in its own context. To a certain degree, we have to let go of our own judgments in order to properly understand works of literature that were written in a different time, place, and culture from our own. Foster then discusses the difficulty of interpreting “private symbols,” meaning symbols that have particular resonance for the author themselves but not within the outside world. Although analyzing such symbols can be challenging, through practice and confidence the reader will eventually be able to discover their meaning. Introducing the final chapter on irony, Foster emphasizes that “irony trumps everything.” All the literary devices described in the book thus far can be used in an ironic manner, leading to altogether new and more complex results.
Toward the end of the book, Foster includes a short story, Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” (1922), as a way for the reader to practice the reading techniques he has described. “The Garden Party” tells the story of a wealthy English family throwing a garden party at their mansion. One of the family’s daughters, a young woman named Laura, is excited about the party until she discovers that a man from the impoverished village near her family’s property has been thrown out of a horse-and-cart and killed. Laura tries to persuade her family to cancel the party out of respect for the man’s family, but her relatives laugh at her, claiming that this is an absurd idea. The party goes ahead and Laura manages to enjoy herself. Once it is over, she takes a basket of leftover food to the man’s house, where she is forced to view his body. On seeing his peaceful expression, Laura feels better about everything that has taken place, although still bewildered by the strangeness of life.
Foster includes examples of interpretations by some of his students, who point to the class tensions within the story, as well as the significance of certain symbols, such as birds. This is the kind of analysis that Foster hopes How to Read Literature Like a Professor will encourage readers to perform. Foster’s own interpretation of “The Garden Party” rests on its relationship to the Greek myth of Persephone, whose descent in the underworld represents the transition from childhood to adulthood (and particularly sexual initiation).
In the book’s conclusion, Foster points out that it can be hard to have confidence in one’s own interpretation of a text, but that readers should trust their instincts and have faith that their own analysis is valuable in its uniqueness. Although there are many literary devices and reading techniques that the book has not covered, those featured in How to Read Like a Professor should set readers off in the right direction and allow them to develop their skills through practice.