To Appreciate Novels, Read Them Like a Professor. Really?

FOR a book with the subtitle, “A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form,” How to Read Novels Like a Professor lives up to its promise, but it does it too earnestly for its own good. The “jaunty” mission has inspired an equally “jaunty” voice replete with colloquialisms: yeah, but; Yep, I know what you’re thinking; Okay, why?—all of which feel a tad pretentious, as if our good professor-author Thomas C. Foster were too self-conscious, too concerned that the world should forever remember him as a hip and cool professor.

The first time I browsed through the book late last year with my fourteen-year-old literature student, I got the sense that one had to turn the pages quickly to keep up with his jaunty pace. Certain places feel like an exercise in name-dropping; other places, a wild surge of words, delivered in almost page-long paragraphs that spill over unabashedly into the next page.

That may not necessarily be a bad thing in a novel, but a book of instruction and insight could do better with a little sense of leisure and ordered breaks—exactly what you’d find in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

The thinking tranquility of Prose is visibly absent in Foster’s work not just because he doesn’t quote passages from novels as lavishly as Prose, but also because his informal register looms large; he just can’t stop talking to you, interjecting here and there, sometimes gratuitously: “Want to play a game?” he asks, in the chapter, “Met-him-pike-hoses” (how cryptic is that for a chapter heading!). And in the first “Pickup Lines” chapter, he’d even scold you: “Stop groaning—there won’t be a test.”

If these are the faults one can find with Professor Foster, they are nothing compared to the great favor he has done to help us grasp the scope and form of what is indeed “the world’s favorite literary form”—favorite in part because this is where the real money is, and not, as he wryly points out, the lyric poem.

However jaunty and speedy his exploration may be, trust that he’d not only leave you with nuggets of novel lore and technicalities (style, tone, mood, diction, point of view, et cetera); he’d also dive into the world of literary commerce, walking you through terms like “triple-deckers” aka “triple-volume cheapies” and why the Victorian style of serial publication made authors like Charles Dickens and George Eliot very rich.

While he zips you around the world and across history to call upon literary greats, you might just begin to question his rationale for pausing a little for Paulo Coelho or even Harry Potter—which brings me to my penultimate peeve about this book. You’re not going to be able to search Coelho or Harry Potter with the help of a back-page index. There isn’t one.

And what’s my last peeve? I’m not sure if literature students should learn how to read a novel like a professor. Do we have to analyze a work to appreciate it? Sometimes, too much analysis kills our love for reading. Simon Kuper from the Financial Times reflected on this beautifully in his September 23, 2011 piece called How I Lost My Love of Reading, which is why I’m more partial towards Francine Prose’s work.

Reading through the eyes of a writer feels so much more right than reading through the eyes of a professor.

How to Read Novels Like a Professor 
By Thomas C. Foster
First published, 2008.
312 pages. Harper Perennial.

Start Date: February 12, 2015


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