How to Read Literature Like a Professor


Thomas C. Foster

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Literature, Life, and Society Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Surface Reading vs. Deeper Reading Theme Icon
Symbol and Metaphor Theme Icon
Archetype and Pattern Recognition Theme Icon
Intertextuality Theme Icon
Literature, Life, and Society Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Literature, Life, and Society Theme Icon

The overall aim of the book is not simply to help high school students pass their English classes or to introduce college students to the world of literary scholarship. Rather, it is clear that the skill of “reading literature like a professor” serves a purpose beyond the confines of the classroom. On one level, literature can help us understand our own minds and lives by a version of the “one story” to which we are all inevitably connected.

Moreover, just as reading skills such as pattern recognition can be useful beyond the specific task of identifying archetypes, so too do reading skills in general serve an important function in creating a harmonious and compassionate society. If readers are able to search for multiple layers of meaning, make connections across texts, understand irony, and so on, they are more likely to be able to engage in sophisticated and nuanced dialog with others in real life, and to empathize with those who are different from themselves. As Foster stresses in the final chapter, the power of literature lies in its ability to create sympathy with others through fostering “sympathy with the historical moment of the story.”

Throughout the book, Foster makes connections between literary texts and historical events, philosophical debates, and contemporary popular culture. Just as the book’s focus on intertextuality emphasizes that texts don’t exist in a vacuum separated from other texts, so does the whole of literature not exist in a vacuum separated from real life. Through discussions of the Bible and psychoanalysis, dining and disease, the book demonstrates how readers can learn about history, culture, and even science from reading and analyzing works of literature.

Foster also stresses the fact that each work of literature is situated in a particular culture at a particular historical moment. For example, his chapter on weather notes that “stormy evenings” would have been particularly dark in the era before street-lights, thereby leading authors of this era to associate intense emotions with such storms. For this reason, literature invites us to move beyond our own perspective and engage with other cultures, religions, and moral systems that might at first seem alien to us.

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Literature, Life, and Society Quotes in How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Below you will find the important quotes in How to Read Literature Like a Professor related to the theme of Literature, Life, and Society.
Chapter 1 Quotes

"Always" and "never" are not words that have much meaning in literary study. For one thing, as soon as something seems to always be true, some wise guy will come along and write something to prove that it's not.

Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Because there was so much the Victorians couldn't write about directly, chiefly sex and sexuality, they found ways of transforming those taboo subjects and issues into other forms. The Victorians were masters of sublimation.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

There is only one story. Ever. One. It's always been going on and it's everywhere around us and every story you've ever read or heard or watched is part of it.

Related Symbols: The One Story
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

The devil, as the old saying goes, can quote Scripture. So can writers. Even those who aren't religious or don't live within the Judeo-Christian tradition may work something in from Job or Matthew or the Psalms.

Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8 Quotes

What we mean in speaking of "myth" in general is story, the ability of story to explain ourselves to ourselves... That explanation takes the shape of stories that are deeply ingrained in our group memory, that shape our culture and are in turn shaped by it, that constitute a way of seeing by which we read the world and, ultimately, ourselves.

Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 12 Quotes

We want [a symbol] to mean something, one thing for all of us and for all time. That would be easy, convenient, manageable for us. But that handiness would result in a net loss: the novel would cease to be what it is, a network of meanings and significations that permits a nearly limitless range of possible interpretations.

Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

The more you exercise the symbolic imagination, the better and quicker it works. We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters those of the writer, and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to.

Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

Fiction and poetry and drama are not necessarily playgrounds for the overly literal. Many times I'll point out that a character is Christlike because he does X and Y and you might come back with, "But Christ did A and Z and his X wasn't like that, and besides, this character listens to AC/DC."

Related Characters: Jesus Christ
Related Symbols: The Bible
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 19 Quotes

Literary geography is primarily about humans inhabiting spaces, and at the same time the spaces inhabiting humans.

Page Number: 173-174
Explanation and Analysis:
Interlude: One Story Quotes

Don't bother looking for the originals, though. You can't find the archetype, just as you can't find the pure myths. What we have, even in our earliest recorded literature, are variants, embellishments, versions, what Frye called "displacement" of the myth.

Related Symbols: The One Story
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

We—as readers or writers, tellers or listeners—understand each other, we share knowledge of the structures of our myths, we comprehend the logic of symbols, largely because we have access to the same swirl of story.

Related Symbols: The One Story
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 24 Quotes

Don't read with your eyes. What I really mean is, don't read only from your own fixed position in the Year of Our Lord two thousand and some. Instead try to find a reading perspective that allows for sympathy with the historical moment of the story, that understands the text as having been written against its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background.

Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 25 Quotes

By "reading" here, I am taking a liberal view. You read novels and poems, of course. But you also "read" a play even if you see it in its proper setting, a theater, and not between the covers of a book. Well, then, do you also "read" a movie? I believe so, although some films may reward reading more than others.

Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 26 Quotes

What is a sign? It's something that signifies a message. The thing that's doing the signifying, call it the signifier, that's stable. The message, on the other hand, the thing being signified (and we'll call that the signified), that's up for grabs. The signified in other words, while being fairly stable itself, doesn't have to be used in the planned way. Its meaning can be deflected from the expected meaning.

Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis: