How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Summary: Every story has ideas or meaning that is more than the words on the page.

If you know me, you know I love to read. But reading words on the page, and enjoying stories is not all there is to reading. What I most want, is to engage in ideas, to help sharpen my understanding of the world and my role in it, to learn history and theology and how others understand the world.

And because I know I am not getting everything I could out of the books I am reading, I decided to pick this up. I listened to this on audiobook while working on my deck outside, so it was more of a background book, but the main ideas were clear.

There are lots of references to lots of books I have not read (and some that I have.) But the referenced to books I had not read was not a hindrance because the points of the references were usually clear.

The main focus of the book is how our reading is enhanced when we understand the cultural and literary references within books. Even when authors are not intentionally placing narrative ‘easter eggs’ in the story, authors have been shaped by the literature and stories they have read and the culture they have lived in. Everything has a reference and means something.

There is a chapter on biblical and theological references, Shakespeare, references to love and sex and other common literary tropes. The main point could be fulfilled in a long article, but as a book length work it has more detail and illustration and I thought it was helpful. I couldn’t help but notice literary references when I watched a few movies the weekend after I finished. And since then many of the books I have read have had additional levels of meaning when I think about not only the words on the page but the meaning of the ideas and stories referenced.

How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines by Thomas Foster Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audiobook, Scribd Audiobook, Scribd ebook


Your review made the book sound interesting enough to investigate, but it was your first paragraph that grabbed me!

I realized that although my reading might result in “[engaging] ideas, [helping] sharpen my understanding of the world and my role in it, [learning] history and theology and how others understand the world,” that’s not (usually) my purpose.

Most of the time my purpose is to “[enjoy] stories” in the same way that I listen to music to enjoy sounds and view art to enjoy pictures.

My purpose: the pursuit of beauty (ultimately to know Beauty personified).

    Beauty is something I am coming to value for its own sake. It was really NT Wright’s book Simply Christian that refocused beauty as a truly Christian word for me. Later reading Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the allure and mystery of Christianity by Brian Zahnd, I came see how important beauty is as a Christian devotion. I think some of my theological shift toward sacramental and liturgical and part of understanding that beauty has value beyond the pragmatic. But I have been deeply shaped by the pragmatic theology of Evangelicalism and it is not an easy shift for me.

    When I solicited books on how to read better, Adler’s How to Read a Book was suggested. But that has always seem (based on how others have portrayed it to me) as a book that focuses on the pragmatic in rejection of the beautiful. This book while never explicitly talking about it, seemed to view the underlying meaning not as pragmatic understanding, but allowing the reading to see a deeper beauty that is beyond the surface.

    I don’t want to oversell this book. I think it is worth reading and interesting but not essential. But what it reminded me, was that ideas and stories can be both beautiful and meaningful, but also sometimes it takes a bit of work to get to both the meaning and beauty.

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