How to Read Literature Like a Professor


Thomas C. Foster

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Surface Reading vs. Deeper Reading 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.
Surface Reading vs. Deeper Reading Theme Icon

Foster explains that he wrote How to Read Literature Like a Professor in order to address a particular problem: the fact that untrained readers tend to read literature in a surface-level way. This kind of reading is akin to the way one “reads” real-life situations, such as taking people at their word when they speak, or assuming there is no symbolic significance to the fact that someone has developed a disease. Foster includes examples of this kind of literal, surface-level interpretation throughout the book as a way of convincing the reader that he understands their resistance to the way professors read literature. Frequently, he begins his explanations of deeper reading techniques by contrasting them with a more superficial interpretation; for example “Sometimes a meal is just a meal… More often than not, though, it’s not.”

The problem with surface reading is not that it will leave readers unable to understand a work of literature (although this may be true of more complex, modern texts). Rather, it simply means that they will miss key information that makes the text richer, more insightful, and enjoyable to read. Unlike surface-level reading, deep reading is an active, imaginative exercise. It encourages the reader to collaborate with the author in the creation of meaning, and allows for multiple points of view regarding what a text means, some of which may completely contradict one another.

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Surface Reading vs. Deeper Reading 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 Surface Reading vs. Deeper Reading.
Introduction Quotes

The professor, as the slightly more experienced reader, has acquired over the years the use of a certain "language of reading," something to which the students are only beginning to be introduced. What I'm talking about is a grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules, that we learn to employ in dealing with a piece of writing.

Page Number: xxv
Explanation and Analysis:

Memory. Symbol. Pattern. These are the three items that, more than any other, separate the professorial reader from the rest of the crowd.

Page Number: xxvii
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 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
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Interlude: One Story Quotes

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

The primary meaning of the text is the story it is telling, the surface discussion (landscape description, action, argument, and so on). There comes a point in our literary development when we nearly all lose sight of that fact.

Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

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:
Chapter 27 Quotes

There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.

Page Number: 267
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Postlude Quotes

A reader’s only obligation, it seems to me, is to the text. We can’t interrogate the writer as to intentions, so the only basis of authority must reside in the text itself.

Page Number: 296-297
Explanation and Analysis: