Reader-friendly literary criticism book a million seller

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — When Rachel Stewart was a rising senior at Bellbrook High School in Ohio, her assigned reading for AP Literature included a work of criticism that she dreaded getting through: "How to Read Literature Like a Professor," by Thomas C. Foster.

"When I heard the title, I thought it was going to be pretty boring, but I surprisingly really liked it," says Stewart, now an English major at Ohio State University. "I thought it was presented in an engaging way ... and I would recommend it to others if they want to get some insight on how to analyze literature."

Published in 2003, "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" has been included in hundreds of high school and college courses nationwide and become a word-of-mouth best-seller, with sales topping 1 million copies, according to HarperCollins. Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 85 percent of the print market, reports more than 100,000 copies sold so far this year.

Foster, 64, is a resident of East Lansing, Michigan, who in 2014 retired as a professor of English at the University of Michigan-Flint. Like many academics, much of his work has been for the scholarly market, including books on poet Seamus Heaney and novelist John Fowles. He first thought of "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" while on sabbatical.

"For some reason, I recalled a silly conversation with a student several years before in which he said he and another student were going to collect the 'sayings of Dr. Tom' into a book," he told The Associated Press.

"I denied that I had 'sayings' and after some back and forth, he came up with 'every trip is a quest.' That became the first chapter title. It turned out there were more of those stock phrases than I had thought. I decided to see if there might be a book in there, and the first few chapters more or less wrote themselves. The later ones were harder, but by then the die was cast."

Foster writes in a conversational style, as if addressing students who expect to be bored. He uses modern slang and likens classic works to contemporary pop culture, whether mentioning Dante and Merle Haggard in the same sentence or finding common ground between Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" and some famous movies.

"It does look a bit weird at first glance, experimental and superhip, but once you get the hang of it, you see that it follows the conventions of a quest tale," he writes. "So does Huck Finn. 'The Lord of the Rings.' 'North by Northwest.' 'Star Wars.' And most other stories of someone going somewhere and doing something, especially if the going and the doing wasn't his idea in the first place."

Instructors who have used "How to Read Literature" responded to Foster's informal approach. Angela Brown, who teaches English at Delbarton School in Morristown, New Jersey, found the book a welcome contrast to the dry "door stoppers" that are usually published about literary analysis. She assigns it as summer reading for her 11th grade language and composition class.

"It's a great foundational document for everyone to read," she says. "From day one, we go right into essay writing and I notice that a lot of our early conversations are related directly to the book."

Foster says he has received some criticism over the years, ranging from minor factual corrections to a "little bit of hate mail" from students. He remembered one teen complaining that everything in Foster's book had already been explained in 9th-grade English class. Foster's response: The student had a really great teacher.

Currently promoting his new book, "Reading the Silver Screen," Foster has written a kids' version of "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" and in 2014 released a revised edition of the original book. Some of the changes were inspired by his visits to schools when he found himself emphasizing that students should form their own opinions and not simply accept his.

"Who can tell you that you didn't feel or think what you know you felt and thought while you were reading?" he says. "Reading is really an act of imagination, just as much as writing is, and the text is where two imaginations come together to create meaning. It took me decades to fully realize and embrace that insight; I'm just trying to speed up the process a little for my readers."