You’d think I’d forgotten how to read critically, and you’d be right. Most of the time I do NOT want to read like a professor – a. because I’m not a professor, b. because I did enough of that kind of reading in college.
But, I will say it’s rather fun to be reminded of all the literary devices I used to have to dig up in the texts I used to read. That I could still dig up if I ever wanted to.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas C. Foster has been a fun read. I haven’t finished it yet and have given to sort of just dipping into it here and there. But the book has brought up lots of reminders into the ways we can read.
The Ways of Reading
We can read for pleasure – that’s me, usually! We can read very critically as the English professors do. We can do a little of both. Foster says reading critically helps reading become more rewarding and fun. Agreed.
And he goes into showing us ways in which we can make it more rewarding and fun: finding the symbols and themes in the context of the story, understanding that the author might not have just put that hero on a boat in the middle of the ocean for the heck of it – he more likely than not had a certain literary model in mind. And why was it winter rather than summer? According to Foster authors are very careful about the seasons in which they place their stories.
What I love and have always found the best and most interesting is “intertextuality,” which is this ongoing conversation older and newer stories have with one another (the word itself sounds almost amorous). “This intertextual dialogue deepens and enriches the reading experience, bringing multiple layers of meaning to the text, some of which readers may not even consciously notice,” Foster writes. Once you are aware that books talk to books, reading can take on an even more exciting layer of intrigue. (Examples of intertextuality: Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and John Donne’s Meditation XVII, and two favorites of mine – Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Jane Eyre.)
one asks…is any of this for real? Do authors really do this?
My father is a writer and he writes novels just because he enjoys having fun creating a good, fairly deep, somewhat complex story. Is there something else there besides the story? Is he up to something just a little bit deeper? If so, he doesn’t say so.
I’m reminded of an interview I heard on a podcast in which Bob Dylan was asked what he meant beneath the surface of certain lyrics. His reply was along these lines: “I don’t know, man, I just write words that sound good together. That’s all.”
You mean this…
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
And where have you been, my darling young one?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
…just means what it says? There’s nothing between the lines? C’mon now!
I think most of us usually find our own deeper meanings inside the happenings of the story. But, I don’t know if even someone like Hemingway was sneaking in symbols. Maybe.
My Interpretation is Different Than Yours…And That’s Okay!
But mostly, I believe it’s up to readers to find the symbols and deeper layers that resonate with them. I specifically remember racking my brain when I was in high school over Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants.” I could see the hills, and the man and woman talking. At the time I wasn’t quite “trained” in finding the literary models, etc. in stories so our teacher coaxed his interpretation out of us.
We were made to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe those hills represented a pregnant belly. The woman was pregnant and the man and the woman were discussing an “operation” – possibly an abortion? The elephants are the “elephant in the room” (the thing not spoken of specifically – the operation (the abortion)). I became enamored with Hemingway then, mostly because of the game he played with his readers (not to mention his beautifully simplistic, scant style of writing that always said something so much more than what was there).
I could literally go on and on here…it’s fun to discuss what an author might have meant or perhaps didn’t mean at all. My experience over the years as both a critical reader and a pleasure reader is that even if we have the expertise of parsing out the various literary devices, models and so forth, in the long run, it’s all up to our personal interpretation. But if you’re up for learning how to have more fun with your reading (outside of reading for pleasure) then this might be a really revealing and even mind-blowing read for you.