My rating: 5 of 5 stars
How to Read Novels Like a Professor (2008) by Thomas C. Foster is the sequel to How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and the novels discussed is this follow-up book range from John Gardner’s famous eponymous villain and novel Grendel, Nabokov’s Lolita, Twain’s Huck Finn, John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (one of my favorites), Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Rushdie’s (Best of the Bookers) Midnight’s Children, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.
Since I have read most of the novels Foster discusses or alludes to, I found this book to be a helpful companion to my own reflections and a very quick and enjoyable read. With that said, many people reading this book without having read a majority of the novels discussed therein (as in the list above) would likely find Foster’s analyses and the literary references a bit tough to get through, but nevertheless illuminating, as it stands to reason. And if it pleases the court, Foster’s voice does ring true and sincere. Even when explaining complex ideas or otherwise boring facts, Foster spins a web of enthusiasm and humility around his words.
In the introduction, as an example of Foster’s voice, he adds a brief and useful history lesson on what contemporary readers call a Novel. ”What we call a novel,” writes Foster, ”would nearly everywhere in non-Anglophone Europe be a roman. That term derives from romanz, the universal term for lengthy narratives in verse prior to the age of print. The word ‘novel,’ by contrast, comes from the Italian term novella, meaning new and small. English removed the diminutive, stuck with the ‘new’ part, and a term was born. Fictional narratives of book length would come to be known as novels” (p 5).
The voice presented through the remaining pages are just as smooth and easy to read, and it seems that Foster always has his readers in mind, regardless of their level of literacy. And Foster goes on to explain, later in the book, what these novels are actually about:
”Novels aren’t about heroes. They’re about us. The novel is a literary form that arose at the same time as the middle class in Europe, those people of small business and property who were neither peasant nor aristocrat, and it has always treated of the middle class. Both lyric and epic poetry grew out of a time that was elitist, a time that believed in the innate right of royalty to rule and the rest of us to amount to not very much” (p 232-233). Foster is certainly in good company since it was Tolstoy in What is Art? that made direct mention to elitist art forms coming in to decline and the more practical and successful implementation of peasant art in content and in forms.
What I liked at times was that Foster kept from the bathos often found among books on literature and did not romanticize a scholarly approach to the romantic notion of literature as an art form. Foster explains: ”We have a desire to divorce art from commerce, to decry the influence of money on movies or corporate underwriters on museums, but the fact of the matter is that most art is influenced to some degree by business issues” (p 9). One example that is widely known, Foster himself cites it, is the alternate ending to the famed Dickens’s novel Great Expectations suggested by the editor. Like Foster, I too have a predilection for the discarded ending (note: no spoilers; you have to read the true ending for yourself).
In Chapter 10, ”Clarissa’s Flowers” Foster discusses how objects and images and places are of vital importance to understanding characters and certain ideas associated with those characters. Foster uses examples such as Gatsby and his shirts, rather than the well-known green light on the opposing shore, ”the licorice-flavored Blackjack chewed by the title character in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato” [an excellent novel], and even Sherlock Holmes and his lesser known deerstalker and seven per cent solution of cocaine (p 120-123).
These are but a few examples found in this chapter alone and Foster never becomes esoteric in the examples he uses; even if a person has never read the book being discussed, Foster is clear and precise in the examples he uses and in his explanations and arguments.
Foster nears the end of his book by writing, ”Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news” (p 307). I warmheartedly agree, and that is why How to Read Novels Like a Professor is a strong recommend, and it does not matter if you a freshman in high school, a sophomore in university, or a litterateur who wants to be reminded about the romantic or scholarly notion of why it is people love to read.
Other Books to Consider: