How to Read Literature Like a Professor Unveiling the Secrets of Literary Interpretation

how to read literature like a professor


Reading literature is an art, and like any art form, it can be approached with varying levels of depth and insight. Thomas C. Foster’s book, “How to Read Literature Like a Professor,” serves as a guide for readers to delve beyond the surface of texts and uncover the hidden layers of meaning and symbolism that enrich the reading experience. In this article, we will explore the key principles from Foster’s book and how they can help us become more adept at analyzing and appreciating literature.

Recognizing Patterns

One of Foster’s foundational principles is the idea that literature is full of patterns and recurring motifs. He encourages readers to pay attention to these patterns, whether they be symbols, themes, or character archetypes. By recognizing these elements, readers can better understand the author’s intentions and the broader themes of the work. For example, recurring references to water often symbolize rebirth or cleansing in literature, while the hero’s journey is a common archetype found in countless stories.

Interpreting Symbols

Symbols play a significant role in literature, and Foster emphasizes the importance of interpreting them. He suggests that readers consider both the obvious and subtle symbols within a text and think critically about their potential meanings. For instance, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock is a potent symbol of Gatsby’s unattainable dreams and the elusive American Dream itself.

Analyzing Characters

Foster encourages readers to analyze characters not only based on their actions but also on their names and descriptions. Names often carry meaning, and authors carefully choose them to convey character traits or thematic significance. Examining the physical attributes, actions, and dialogue of characters can provide insights into their symbolic roles in the story. By doing so, readers can uncover hidden layers of meaning and better understand the narrative’s subtext.

Understanding Irony

Irony is a literary device that adds depth and complexity to a story. Foster teaches readers to recognize and appreciate different forms of irony, such as situational, dramatic, and verbal irony. Understanding irony helps readers grasp the author’s intentions and the underlying commentary on themes, characters, and society. A classic example of situational irony can be found in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” where the characters’ well-intentioned sacrifices lead to an unexpected twist.

Exploring Point of View

Foster discusses the importance of considering the narrator’s perspective and the narrative’s point of view when interpreting a text. Different narrators can provide biased or limited perspectives, influencing the reader’s understanding of events and characters. By examining the narrator’s reliability and motivations, readers can uncover hidden agendas and explore the complexities of the story’s world.

Recognizing Intertextuality

Intertextuality refers to the interplay between different texts, where one text references, quotes, or draws inspiration from another. Foster encourages readers to be alert to these connections, as they can provide valuable insights into the themes, motifs, and cultural influences at play in a work of literature. For example, the biblical allusions in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” contribute to the novel’s layered meaning and thematic depth.

Considering Culture and Historical Context

Literary works are often deeply influenced by the cultural and historical context in which they were written. Foster encourages readers to consider the time period, social norms, and historical events that shaped the author’s perspective and the text’s themes. Analyzing these contextual factors helps readers gain a deeper appreciation of the narrative’s significance and relevance.


Why is it important to read literature like a professor?

This book teaches the reader how to look for symbols, themes, and patterns in works of literature in the way that is expected by English professors.

Why is studying literature essential for students like you?

Literature is an excellent way for students to learn how to think critically. To fully understand what’s going on in the book, readers must pay attention to details, form relationships, and develop their individual ideas. Textbooks are frequently used by teachers to help expand students’ vital thinking skills.


Thomas C. Foster’s “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” provides readers with valuable tools for unlocking the richness of literary texts. By recognizing patterns, interpreting symbols, analyzing characters, understanding irony, exploring point of view, recognizing intertextuality, and considering cultural and historical context, readers can develop a deeper understanding and appreciation of literature. Reading becomes more than a passive activity; it transforms into an engaging and enriching exploration of the human experience through the lens of storytelling. As we apply these principles to our reading, we discover that literature, like a professor, has much to teach us about the complexities of life, society, and the human condition.

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