How to Read Literature Like a Professor - Thomas C. Foster 2003



THERE’S A VERY OLD TRADITION in poetry of adding a little stanza, shorter than the rest, at the end of a long narrative poem or sometimes a book of poems. The function differed from poem to poem. Sometimes it was a very brief summation or conclusion. My favorite was the apology to the poem itself: “Well, little book, you’re not that much but you’re the best I could make you. Now you’ll just have to make your way in the world as best you can. Fare thee well.” This ritual sending-off was called the envoi (I told you that all the best terms are French—and the worst), meaning, more or less, to send off on a mission.

If I told you that I didn’t owe my book an apology, we’d both know it was untrue, and every author wraps up a manuscript with some trepidation as to its future welfare. That trepidation, however, becomes pointless once the manuscript becomes a book, as the old writers understood, which is why they told the poor book that it was now an orphan, that whatever parental protections the writer could offer had ended. On the other hand, I figure my little enterprise can get along without me pretty well, so I’ll spare it the send-off.

Instead I would address my envoi to the reader. You’ve really been very good about all this, very sporting. You’ve borne my guff and my wisecracks and my annoying mannerisms much better than I have any right to expect. A first-class audience, really. Now that it’s time for us to part, I have a few thoughts with which to send you on your way.

First, a confession and a warning. If I have given the impression somehow—by reaching an end point, for instance—that I have exhausted the codes by which literature is written and understood, I must apologize. It simply isn’t true. In fact, we’ve only scratched the surface here. It now strikes me as highly peculiar, for instance, that I could have brought you this far with no mention of fire. It’s one of the original four elements, along with water, earth, and air, yet somehow it didn’t come up in our discussion. There are dozens of other topics we could have addressed as easily and as profitably as the ones we did. In fact, my original conception was for somewhat fewer chapters, and a slightly different lineup. The chapters that wound up getting included reflect the noisiness and persistence of their topics: some ideas refused to be denied, crowding their way in and sometimes crowding out those that were less ill-mannered. Looking back over the text, it strikes me as highly idiosyncratic. To the extent that my colleagues would agree that this mode of reading is at least a strong part of what we do, they would no doubt squawk over my categories. Quite right, too. Every professor will have a unique set of emphases. I gather my thoughts into groupings that seem inevitable, but different groupings or formulations may seem inevitable to someone else.

What this book represents is not a database of all the cultural codes by which writers create and readers understand the products of that creation, but a template, a pattern, a grammar of sorts from which you can learn to look for those codes on your own. No one could include them all, and no reader would want to plow through the resulting encyclopedia. I’m pretty sure I could have made this book, with not too much effort, twice as long. I’m also pretty sure neither of us wants that.

Second, a felicitation. All those other codes? You don’t need them. At least you don’t need them all spelled out. There comes a point in anyone’s reading where watching for pattern and symbol becomes almost second nature, where words and images start calling out for attention. Consider the way Diane picked up on the birds in “The Garden Party.” No one taught her to go looking for birds per se in her reading; rather, what happens is that, based on other reading experiences in a variety of courses and contexts, she learned to watch for distinctive features of a text, for repetitions of a certain kind of object or activity for resonances. One mention of birds or flight is an occurrence, two may be a coincidence, but three constitutes a definite trend. And trends, as we know, cry out for examination. You can figure out fire. Or horses. Characters in stories have ridden horses—and sometimes bemoaned their absence—for thousands of years. What does it mean to be mounted on a steed, as opposed to being on foot? Consider some examples: Diomedes and Odysseus stealing the Thracian horses in The Iliad, the Lone Ranger waving from astride the rearing Silver, Richard III crying out for a horse, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda roaring down the road on their choppers in Easy Rider. Any three or four examples will do. What do we understand about horses and riding them or driving them—or not? See? You can do it just fine.

Third, some suggestions. In the Appendix, I offer some ideas for further reading. There’s nothing systematic or even particularly orderly about the suggestions. I’m certainly not weighing in on the culture wars, offering a prescribed reading list to make you . . . whatever. Mostly, these are works I’ve mentioned along the way, works I like and admire for a variety of reasons, works I think you might like as well. I hope you’ll find them even better now than you would have a number of pages ago. My main suggestion, though, is to read things you like. You’re not stuck with my list. Go to your bookstore or library and find novels, poems, plays, stories that engage your imagination and your intelligence. Read “Great Literature,” by all means, but read good writing. Much of what I like best in my reading I’ve found by accident as I poked around bookshelves. And don’t wait for writers to be dead to be read; the living ones can use the money. Your reading should be fun. We only call them literary works. Really, though, it’s all a form of play. So play, Dear Reader, play.

And fare thee well.