“How to Read Novels Like a Professor”

February 6, 2009 at 4:55 pm | Posted in Books About Books, Nonfiction, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Thomas C. Foster has done it again.  Our favorite literature professor has made an accessible, funny introduction to his pet subject.  How to Read Novels Like a Professor is the follow-up to How to Read Literature Like a Professor.  (One senses a trend).

How to Read Novels succeeds in all the ways its predecessor did.  It surpasses it in that Novels seems to have fewer spoilers than Literature.  Foster mentions the spoiler issue, toward the end of the book, so we can surmise that someone brought it to his attention.  It would be difficult, if not impossible, to write a spoiler-free book about analyzing literature, unless you wrote your own stories and analyzed them.  Who would want to read that?  Anyway, if you want to enjoy Foster’s books you’ll have to accept that most likely at least one spoiler will penetrate your defenses.

The first question answered is, what is the difference between novels and literature?  In more prosaic terms, what’s the point of writing a second book virtually identical in concept to the first?  Foster points out that not all novels are literature and not all literature takes the form of a novel.  (This is why we’re hoping he’s working on How to Read Poetry Like a Professor).  We are glad for the distinction.  Indeed, the themes of the two books are quite different.  We feel we’re taking the 102 class the semester after 101.

One of the things I like about Foster is that I have learned just a tremendous amount about books from him.  Another thing is that, while he’s probably read every work of repute published in the English tongue, he’s not a snob at all.  He discusses detective novels and Harry Potter along with Joyce, Faulker, and others of their ilk.  (Harold Bloom, on the other hand, dismisses Toni Morrison as “grocery store fiction” (in the new How to Live, by Henry Alford) – making one wonder just what he does consider Real Literature).

Reading Foster is the perfect solution for those of us who never managed to take a lit class in college.  He exposes us to high-falutin’ literary fiction in a way that makes us not only feel that we might understand it, but maybe even want to try it.  He teaches us about books without any weighty expectations about anything we Ought to read.

“The Library at Night”

January 30, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Posted in Books About Books, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

The Library at Night is destined to be a legend among books about books.  Alberto Manguel discusses every aspect of libraries that one could possibly think of, from the perspective of the lifetime collector.  The book is packed with illustration and library trivia about everything from the library of Alexandria to the Dewey Decimal System.

Manguel describes his constant reshuffling and organizing of his own library, something that is probably quite familiar to all of us.  He had the unbelievable luxury of being able to design and build an addition to his house just for his books – and when you see where it is, you’ll positively seethe with jealousy.  Imagine having unlimited time and space to play with your book collection!

Various questions come up about what makes a library.  Manguel has opinions about the digitizing and microfilming of archival materials and eliminating unused materials, for instance, that could be subject to much debate.  Myself, I believe there truly are materials with a built-in obsolescence, and thus it seems silly to devote space and maintenance to them.  Manguel has a more traditional book-lover’s regard for the printed page.

If you love books and being surrounded by them, check out The Library at Night.  You’re guaranteed to find out things you didn’t even realize you didn’t know.  You might even start thinking of books and libraries in a new way.

“How to Read Literature Like a Professor”

August 14, 2008 at 1:55 am | Posted in Books About Books, Nonfiction | 1 Comment

This is a great book in the tradition of Fadiman’s The Lifetime Reading Plan and Adler’s How to Read a Book. Won’t someone tell me what to read and why I should read it? I realize that there are those who look down on this sort of thing. But hey, not everybody is going to get a degree in English literature. Those who did – you do want people to read great books, don’t you? Even… common people?


I read How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster, in preparation to read his new book, How to Read Novels Like a Professor. (You can see where this is going; I bet either Poetry or Plays will be next). I just like to keep on top of these things, and, of course, see if there are any great books missing from my list of things to read. Indeed, there were a few things I wanted to go out and grab right away.


Foster writes well, and I imagine his classes are popular. He’s funny and highly engaging. The chapters are all bite-sized, just a few pages each, so you could read this book a little at a time between other things if you like. There’s just one problem: spoilers! Essentially every time Foster mentions a book, he immediately sums up the entire plot and gives away the ending and/or the major events of the plot. No warning, either. Now, I read a lot, and I’ve been working on “the list” since junior high school, but I had only read maybe half the books he mentioned. Almost all the remainder were on my to-read list. So now I have this feeling of disappointment, that I’m finally going to read these books and I’ll already be anticipating the end. Bah, I hate that. It happened to me when Harry Potter 4 had just come out, and this young blonde piped out with: “I can’t believe ____ ___!” (The most shocking event of the entire series to that point). I turned to her and said, “Gee, thanks, I’m still on Book Two,” and she gave me a dirty look. Why couldn’t she just have said “I can’t believe the ending!”?


So consider yourself warned. Foster will probably do the exact same thing in Novels. There ought to be a concordance, so one could skip the sections talking about books one hoped to read one day. On the other hand, it’s ideal if you’d like to give the impression of having read through the canon without actually having done it.

“How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read”

July 12, 2008 at 7:33 am | Posted in Books About Books, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(April 6, 2008)

When I saw How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, I thought it was a spoof.  I didn’t realize until I got it from the library that I’d read another book by its author, Pierre Bayard, and that I was in for something far more clever.  (The other book was Who Framed Roger Ackroyd?.)  Bayard is supposedly giving advice on how to seem more well-read than you actually are, while quoting such literary luminaries as Proust, Montaigne, Wilde, Eco, and Balzac.  He promotes a system of notation showing whether a person has heard about a book, skimmed it, forgotten it, or knows nothing about it – and even the books he claims only to have skimmed are impressive.

The cover shows a stack of books: Ulysses, The Man Without Qualities, The Magic Mountain, Hamlet, Middlemarch, In Search of Lost Time, War and Peace, and Moby-Dick.  I always get excited when I see a picture of a stack of books, because hopefully I’ll see something I’ll want to go out and read right away.  In this case, I’d read six of the eight, and am currently reading the seventh.  (My library doesn’t have a complete copy of Musil).  I had to laugh a bit, though, because the picture was obviously photoshopped.  It made Hamlet look about 400 pages long, while the two-volume Man Without Qualities fit in one ordinary volume. War and Peace and Middlemarch both appeared to have photo inserts in the middle.  I wonder how hard it would have been to find genuine copies of eight books that are all in print?

The back cover lists more books, and asks, “Which of these great books have you:  a) talked about convincingly without ever cracking the spine? b) read so long ago that you can’t remember anything but the title? c) skimmed just enough to have an opinion? d) heard about so often that you don’t have to bother reading it? e) actually read?”  The books are Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Heart of Darkness, Invisible Man, A Room of One’s Own, Being and Nothingness, In Cold Blood, The Scarlet Letter, The Man Without Qualities, Lolita, Jane Eyre, and The Sun Also Rises.  Okay, I loved In Cold Blood, but is it really a “Great Book”?  I mean, it’s true crime.  Not that this is the point – the point is just that we all tend to recognize a certain list of famous book titles and feel like we ought to read them some day.  And this is a major focus of Bayard’s book.

Bayard starts out admitting that, as a literature professor, it is part of his job to pretend to have read books he hasn’t.  He continues, through various fascinating philosophical arguments, to prove to the reader that it is better not to read in certain cases.  A person who knows many things about a certain book may be better off than a person who reads it but has no context for it.  For instance, I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces, but I do know that the author got in trouble for passing off a fictional work as a personal memoir.  I also know that existing copies of the book do not mention this backstory, and it is still shelved in my local library under nonfiction.  I may be better off than a person who stumbles across this book and reads it, thinking it’s a true story.

Bayard goes on to point out that a person who has read a book may not remember it very well; he includes the example of Montaigne, who couldn’t even remember books he had written very well.  He would hear someone quoting his work and not recognize his own words.  I’ve had this happen to me, too, so I see the point.  Again, a person who has read a book review may, at a certain point in time, know a book better than someone who read it five years ago.  Does it really count that we have read a book if we can’t remember anything about it?  (I’m glad for this because it makes it a lot easier for my book group to choose new titles).

Why do we read, anyway?  Bayard just about has us convinced, at the end of his book, that it’s better to read about something, or to discuss it, than to read it.  Reading a book may even affect our understanding of it in a negative way.  He even makes a case for criticism being more valuable than literature, and shows criticism as a potentially more valid creative act – especially when the critic hasn’t read the book in question.

This is where I know he’s joking.  Bayard is sly and quite brilliant.  In writing a book that purports to convince people not to read, he nearly forces the reader into a position of devil’s advocacy.  At the end of each argument, I had to agree with his examples, while disagreeing with his premise.  Of course we need to read books!  We even need to throw ourselves at “Great Books”!  Even if they are boring!  But then, maybe I’m a sucker.  I would be better off reading something called How Not to Talk about Books You Have Read.

“So Many Books, So Little Time”

July 12, 2008 at 7:14 am | Posted in Books About Books, Nonfiction | Leave a comment

(December 28, 2007)

Sara Nelson wrote the book on a sentiment I’ve expressed so many times myself.  How can we ever hope to read everything we want to?  She sets out to read one book a week for a year, and write about the book and how it fits in with what’s going on in her life.

The book begins, “Call me insomniac,” echoing Melville.  Here is something we have in common; I can never seem to sleep, either.  I laughed when she described turning the light back on after tossing and turning, reading for a while, trying to sleep again, then turning on the light again.  We also both read obsessively and try to force books on the unwilling men in our lives.

The great debates of book readers are addressed:  the ethics of lending and borrowing; the logistics of reading multiple books at once; whether, or when, to give up on a book; whether to read the book or watch the movie first; and of course what books to be seen reading where.  We see that there is much more to the practice of reading than simply absorbing text.

I hadn’t read most of the specific titles mentioned, and some of them weren’t really up my alley.  Yet the charm of the book lies, unlike in Book Lust, not in cataloguing and promoting titles, but rather in the selection process and Nelson’s description of how her reading matter fit in with her life.  (Watch out for spoilers, though).

It’s funny how people can be so similar and so different at the same time.  For instance, neither of us had a problem reading a book a week.  She doesn’t like history, true crime, horror, or poetry, and isn’t very excited about children’s literature (including Harry Potter!) – all categories I love.  Yet we both face the same reader’s dilemmas, like what to do when you’re packing for vacation with only 50 pages left in a really good book.  Or, do you re-read a book you loved in your youth, only to risk spoiling your memory?  Do you force yourself to finish a book that you’re having trouble getting into, just to check it off your list?  Can you reject a friendship because the other person’s literary tastes embarrass you?

I would say, yes, finish the slow-starting book, though it’s probably best to wait to start it if you’re not in the mood.  I ran into that problem with The Magic Mountain, and found a better translation that made it a real page-turner for me.  On the other hand, I advise against re-reading books.  If you’re nostalgic for childhood, just read a new children’s book or one you missed back in the day.  (I still haven’t read Peter Pan).  I can’t really understand the point of re-reading a book, when there are so many books I haven’t yet read that could be my new favorite.  I’m trying to keep my current list below 700.

The all-important point about books and friendship?  Assume you will have some non-literary friendships and leave it at that.  If you have friends who read escape fiction or military history or whatever else you scoff at, just be glad they won’t ask to borrow your books.  And if they try to lend you something, tell them you just got your eyes dilated or you’re getting ready to fumigate your apartment.

I never have come up with an answer for the almost-finished pre-vacation book, though.

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