How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003), by Thomas C. Foster


Its title is terrible, but the book is invaluable.

You’d want your daughter or son to attend the University of Michigan and take all of Foster’s literature courses even if it meant your offspring would need an extra year to obtain a bread-winning degree in a practical discipline and your immensely rich, widowed mother-in-law would refuse to lend you the $75,000 (“I’ll not have my money squandered!”), descrying your obsession with “fluff” in a shouting match during which she would advise her shaken daughter to divorce you.

Your kid would be much better off taking Foster’s courses, however, even though your new apartment would no doubt be pretty shabby. (Do they still sell Hamburger Helper?)

One of the main ideas in Foster’s gift is “intertextuality.” (Believe it or not, a Russian, not a Frenchman, emerged from the fog index with that paragon of jargon!)

“Intertextuality”: Old texts informing new texts; new texts reworking old texts, often ironically. Not exactly intercourse, albeit some ribald scribblers have said it is. A few have even called it a criminal sexual act. But they’d better be careful, or we’ll place them in the category of Tabloid.

Know thyself, but likewise know thy Shakespeare, Sophocles, Greek mythology, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Samurai tales, fairy tales, knight stories and other traditional literary models. Then you will learn about “sources” (i.e., often happy thievery) as in Joyce’s Ulysses patterned in its twenty-four segments after Homer’s earlier two dozen; Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! patterned after the King David Biblical episode (when David comes upon his son, Absalom, after Absalom has hanged himself, he certainly might cry out along Faulkner’s lines) and in part also patterned after Aeschylus’ Oresteia; and, well, nearly all the rest of the major works since the ancient world, all the olden wonders congregating as youngsters pick their brains, these oldsters on leave from Elysium and sometimes happy and sometimes not so happy with the interrogating youngsters.

Of course, Melville, Faulkner, Joyce and artists of their stature after ancient times have put in new myths and history and culture and characters and simply exhibited that they are wise gods, knowing that unlike God, and She allegedly at that, they cannot create something from nothing and that hence it’s best to pick the best models, “best” assuredly involving “resonance” and assuming well-versed readers. And, ah, what wonderful variations they play!

So: It most certainly isn’t plagiarism but the application of the literary equivalent of E=MC2: Myth + Culture + History + Personal (sometimes “Everyperson” or “Everyone”) = classics or eventual classics. Stress “Myth.” In the beginning was Myth.

Seeing the intertextual patterns is important because: we may not be close to accounting scientifically for human conduct and human history (forgetting not the formidable–perhaps even insurmountable–mystery of “subjectivity” which seems both an ever-elusive, out-of-reach-yet-crucial matter in any such rigorous understanding among the white coats in the labs and thus an indefinite dilemma); but the basic stories, even though they don’t work at all in laboratories, will truthfully, and sometimes uniquely actionably, tell us what we do, have done, and will do.

Gosh, now, if that isn’t terribly useful!

For example, we learn that rebels usually imitate the tyrants they depose, earlier in Shakespeare (and even long before him) and later in Animal Farm. Alas, you can count on such awful ironies most of the time, and most pointedly for all us living, anon. And in life and show business, timing is all. Calm down and don’t go to Nuremberg in the 1930s but quietly, with all due speed, to London. Having a little Missouri in you thanks to the Greeks may prove vital. You might well not be a true believer but in worldly wisdom blow off the Satanic “festivals” at Nuremberg a lot more readily when you think of Prometheus or Sisyphus. Get out of Dodge when it’s time. Somewhat more trivially: Too bad John Edwards didn’t run into Achilles somewhere very early on Edwards’s original presidential campaign trail (that was the campaign trail he was on before the second campaign trail he was on) and have a cup of coffee together. “How’d you get that limp, Achilles?”

Foster packs into 299 pages much wisdom about reading great and good literature: here are three examples from the many: rain is never rain; meals are never meals (they are communion, good or bad); there are five elements in the classic vampire story but it doesn’t mandate a mouldy old count who destroys the life of a virginal young woman so he can enervate himself (that’s Victorian) but might well appear variously anew:

“I’ve always supposed (says Foster) that Wall Street traders utter essentially the same sentence (‘In order to remain undead, I must steal the life force of someone whose fate matters less to me than my own’). My guess is that as long as people act toward their fellows in exploitative and selfish ways, the vampire will be with us.”

“Intertextuality.” There you have it. Well, actually, you have a tiny taste (oops) er smidgen of the many, many wonders in this essential book.

If you want to know exactly why Thomas Pynchon’s formidable but haunting The Crying of Lot 49, a tale you may never have fathomed but felt you ought to have, is an unlikely narrative without there having been invented centuries before the Quest Story, exemplified, say, in Sir Gwain and the Green Knight, well, you’re going to have to read Foster’s gift to you (and all the rest of us). The complex is suddenly made elegantly simple. It’s a stunning, canny reading, imposing order on apparent chaos. And Pynchon seems not diminished but even more powerfully, masterfully, historically, and universally important. In short, he is revealed as very much in the tradition.

More basically, Foster tells us something we readers have always intimated on some level: there is finally only one story: Self-discovery through experience. Yes, all stories are fundamentally the same. Understanding this well enough to read your own experience sagely couldn’t be more important to you as you stagger about in the time allotted  you.

So go ahead and spend a few bucks on Old Tom. He’s probably driving a car that needs a brake job. The blue blazer might be a little tattered. We need to keep him safe and sound. If your nephew or niece wants to go to Michigan, call your mother-in-law if you have to do so. You’ll have a better idea of why the old —– is so nasty (if she is); and I’m guessing, thanks to Tom, you’ll suddenly recall Hansel and Gretel. And after you are in that dingy apartment, you might have the time to read a marvelous modern version by Robert Coover in his story, “The Gingerbread House,” in which Foster  sees this:

“…the witch…as the story progresses is metonymically transformed into the black rags she wears (they are flapping on a clothesline), as if we’re just catching her out of the corner of our eye….”

A bonus: You’ll discover a sophisticated definition of “metonymy,” the sort of marvel found throughout Foster’s book.

Foster’s book is officially a “How to” and not a “Why to” book. But the professor is sly. Why you should read literature comes out between the lines, just as he says happens throughout literature.

The remaining question seems to be: How many are still reading the sources?

Oh, well.