Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I'm currently quite caught up in Thomas Foster's How to Read Literature like a Professor.

I stumbled upon this book by accident, and was in the perfect position to be intrigued by it. Although I studied mathematics in school, and am a software guy by profession, my mother, my wife, and my eldest daughter are all literature majors, and I've always been fascinated by how they approach the books they read.

So I've been working my way through Foster's book, and enjoying it quite a bit.

There are parts of the book which are hard for me to get a lot of value from, because he uses as examples works that I'm not very familiar with: I never read any Joyce, or any Eliot, and had never even heard of Angela Carter. So there are significant parts of Foster's book that I just skim through and try to absorb what I can.

But other parts have a real resonance for me. For example, I was reading the section on water and rain. Although Foster discusses how these elements are handled in Joyce's Ulysses, and in some Thomas Hardy novels that I haven't read, I could still immediately comprehend Foster's points about various ways that authors use the themes of water and rain in their work:
  • As references to the Noah's Ark story from the Bible, and with it the notion of water as a spiritual cleansing,
  • As references to more physical notions of clean and dirty,
  • As mood-setting mechanisms,
  • As plot devices, for example Foster shows how Hardy uses rain to force two characters to meet in an unlikely fashion.
Reading this chapter, I was struck by how I had previously noticed the importance that water and rain play in various novels that I've studied, but had not connected the dots in such a fashion:
  • In Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, we have of course the lake, and the bridge over the lake, but also a great flood.
  • In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, there is a climactic scene with a hurricane.
  • In E.M Forster's A Passage to India, there is a major scene near the end with boating on the lake, with fireworks and various discussions about the role that water and floods play in India.
At any rate, if you're looking for something a little different, and if you're at all interested in the topic of how authors work and how literature is constructed, let me recommend Foster's book to you.

And now, back to the world of software :)


  1. Hello,
    I have not read the book mentioned in this blog. In fact I have never tried to read a book like a professor. I try to read a book like a reader and only a reader.
    I am a student of literature and so had to read and still have to read lots of literature work. The few authors poets mentioned above I have read their works and thoroughly enjoyed them also.
    Nice to learn that the blogger her took some interest in literature (although he is 'back to software' now)
    Nice blog.
    Tito Dutta.

  2. See also: