Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reading a book on how to read a book

I know the idea sounds a little wacky, especially for a veteran reader like myself, to read a book on how to read a book but I often feel that I miss a lot of symbolism and stuff when I read fiction. I tend to think that it is because I read fiction to enjoy myself and I don't want to be thinking overly hard. Then again, I might just be a dummy. Regardless, I thought it might be good to learn from a professor, those same folks who force(d) us to look for that same symbolism and ruin some good books along the way.

I came across this book in this post by Keith Law. Well, the predecessor to this book. Foster initially wrote How to Read Literature Like A Professor and then followed it up with this one, Hoe to Read Novels Like a Professor. In one of those nice fortuitous moments, I had started to read this book, was enjoying it, when a library patron came in and donated three books to the library. One was Foster's How to Read Literature. Another was one of my favorites, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. The third was some literary criticism thing which did find its way to the donation stack (don't worry, I made financial contributions for the books I took). So I do have the prequel if I find myself wanting to read it some day.

I probably will. I enjoyed this book a lot. I'm not entirely clear on what differentiates novels and literature in Foster's mind since so many of his references are considered great literature (Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dickens, Austen, Nabokov). He throws some other names in their as well but if he had titled this was one How tor Read Literature, I don't think anyone would have noticed.

The book is surprisingly entertaining and not really scholarly in the least. My only complaint is that he drags on certain topics for multiple chapters and repeats some stuff. Well, two more complaints. One, it didn't help me with symbolism at all. It did help me come to grips with my perceived inability. Foster talks about how a book is really a combination of the writer and the reader. Once a book is completed, it's really out of the writer's hands as to how it is perceived and interpreted. Each individual reader will interpret it through the lens of their own understanding, their previous readings of other works (Foster spends a lot of time talking about historic influences on writing and reading), etc. So I may think that To Kill a Mockingbird is about bird hunting and there's nothing wrong with that. That's my interpretation. I might not do too well on an English test with that interpretation but so be it. Harper Lee did what she could and maybe didn't expect a reader as obtuse as the one I'm exemplifying (I know it's not about bird hunting. It's a microcosm of the war of 1812).

My final complaint is that Foster mentions a lot of books and in the end he says, "Since this book you've just finished is a giant reading list, I thought it redundant to plaster the same names in my back pages". Redundant is not the word I would have used. Helpful is. He does list several pages of other books on literary criticism but given the number and variety of books he mentions throughout the pages, a reference list would have been very nice.

Foster's book was humbling in that, despite my feeling like I read a lot, there's so many writers (great ones), that I have yet to read. Based on his repeated mentions of him, I recently started a book by T.C. Boyle and am loving it.

If you are a serious reader, you really ought to check this book out. Even if you don't learn a whole lot, I guarantee you'll learn something and will have a greater appreciation of what you do read.

No comments: