Monday, April 19, 2004

Nice Story, But What Does it Mean?

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster is a book that I wish I had read back in 12th-grade English (a class which, had it been 11th-grade English, probably would have severely affected my college possibilities). It's a great introduction to understanding and appreciating the symbolism in literature, and it even made me want to go back and re-read things like Song of Solomon or The Odyssey that I found so torturous six years ago.

I liked Foster's approach to teaching. He has a lot of fairly absolute statements, implying that X always means Y, which can seem a bit extreme at times. But I think he also makes it clear that he's just doing this to get his points across. He reminds us that really, he's just showing us some tools here, and we can do what we want with them. I liked this passage in particular:
We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters that of the writer, and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to. Imagination isn't fantasy. That is to say, we can't simply invent meaning without the writer, or if we can, we ought not to hold her to it. Rather, a reader's imagination is the act of one creative intelligence engaging another.
To me, this relates to dream interpretation, as well as reading literature. I've never been a fan of things like dream "dictionaries" that purport to give you specific meanings for specific symbols in your dreams. While this may be useful for pointing out some general cultural associations you may not be entirely aware of, it is not as valuable for dreams going on inside your head as it would be for literature going on out there in the world. The most important thing is to consider what the symbols mean to you, what your gut reaction is to them, and any parallels you see in them with your own life. I was glad to see a little bit of that in this book as well.

Foster also has a very interesting chapter on the concept of all literary works really being fundamentally about the same story. He describes it in terms of cultural archetypes and myths going back before history, that we all draw on when we create works of art and literature. I still feel like the "overall human story" is probably big enough to contain many smaller stories, so I'm not really sure that it's not basically just a terminology distinction. But that's probably something that bears more thought on my part, and I appreciated the fact that he discussed that a bit as a way to put the rest of the book in context.

Anyway, I'm very glad to have read this, given that I'm starting to read a lot more fiction again. It added a huge stack of books to my reading list, though (which was already unmanageably long). But that's okay.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember reading an essay on the internet about archtypical story lines, of which that author thought there were 8 or 9.... or was it 14. (I don't remember) I was so miffed at him for quite a while for limiting storytelling this way! But after I calmed down, I realized he was probably right. I think we have a "myth magnet" in our heads. We are so READY to hear stories it's kind of comical.

Ever notice how you hang on every word when you hear... say a "Billy Joe McCallister" kind of song? You just can't help yourself :-)