Long time back I had read a Malayalam book by Guru Nithyachaitanya Yathi titled Soundaryam, Anubhavam, Anubhoothi which was a collection of his essays on literature and arts. I was astounded by the way he takes apart the text, connects it with history, his own experiences, and other classics of past and comes up with fantastic insights about it. It changed my perceptions about reading and appreciating books. I used to be a voracious reader, with sole aim of finishing the book in hand as fast as possible and starting the next one. I used to skim a lot of sentences and paragraphs and properly read only that portions which dealt with the story. But Yathi’s book taught me how to really read a book. I won’t claim I am wiser now, or that I can decipher cryptal messages from the books that I read or that I am even trying to. But I hope this book that I read recently may take me onwards.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor, written by Thomas C Foster, an American professor of English, has an interesting tagline- A lively and entertaining guide to reading between the lines. He starts the book with an incident that happened when he was discussing Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun in his class. He points out that Mr. Lindner in the play is actually the Devil himself, his students never believe him. Even after he explains his reasons, his class thinks he is making it up. The Professor explains that there is a ‘language of reading’ which is a skill that comes with a bit of practice and experience. In the preceding chapters, the trick of reading books with a Professor’s eye is revealed.
The aim of the book is to help the reader understand the technique of reading in between lines- to find the patterns in a text, to read the hidden meanings behind the images in it or to find out connections it has with other previously written works. All these immensely help in appreciating the depth of literature and add to the pleasure of enjoying it. Author, with the help of many examples demonstrate different connections, patterns or images that repeat many times in different contexts. In the first chapter he demonstrates how a quest story is formed, when a knight follows a dangerous road in search of a Holy Grail. The contexts may differ, but the essence remains same. He goes on demonstrating how scenes of communion, vampirism, seasons, climate, geography, violence, disease, deformities or sex can be interpreted to find meanings of deeper social, political or psychological value. He also points out the most popular connections with previous works- Shakespeare, Bible, Greek epics and even fairy tales.
The witty and easily understandable language of the Professor makes the journey easy for us. But if we are to truly benefit from the book, it is not enough to just read it. Lot of practice is required, as well as good background knowledge, a step to which the author himself provides. A beautiful story by Katherine Mansfield is given in the last of the book for the reader to put use of his knowledge gained form the book. Analysis by some of the author’s students is also provided.
A word of caution for non- English readers- as the author is an English Professor; he deals mostly with English and to some extent European literature, where the aesthetics and values are derived from a Jewish/Christian background. For reading books from other cultures, say Chinese or Indian books, the pointers in this book may not be sufficient. Still this book can help to point out places to look in order to find the connections. All in all this is the perfect book for a literature lover, and added bonus is the great bibliography at the end of the book.