How to Read Literature Like a Professor Book Summary


Hi Success Titan reader, I’m Sal Damiata, and that’s the book summary of “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” by Thomas C. Foster. 

Why this Book?

What if every literature text has some hidden meanings that are evident only to the most attentive reader? Without the proper tools, you’d be missing out on a deeper understanding of the work. 

If you want to learn how to decode messages in literary works, keep reading as that’s probably the right book summary for you.


How to Read Literature Like a Professor is a book that aims at teaching its readers what differentiates an amateur reader from a professional one. Anyway, is it really possible to become a professional reader even without being a professor? Let’s discover it together.

Who’s it for? 

  • People that would like to make their reading experience more enjoyable;
  • People that would like to get a deeper understanding of how literature works;
  • Curious people that would like to learn how to uncover the secret messages in literature works.

What You’ll Learn from it

  • How to read between the lines of any literature piece;
  • What all great stories have in common and how they are structured;
  • How to identify the interplay between classic and modern literature.

In a Nutshell

  • There is only one story, and every story created is just a small part of a bigger story that’s going on, that’s why literature is a way with which we humans get to know each other, talking about each other. The secret messages in any literary work are nothing but references to universal truths and archetypes.

3 Sentence Summary

  • Symbolism can’t be reduced to one single thing, and that’s precisely the purpose of a symbol; ambiguity. This gives the reader the possibility of limitless interpretations that will be derived with their pre-existing knowledge.
  • No literary work is completely original. This phenomenon is called intertextuality and is widely used to trigger memories so that the reader can enjoy the work more and also to let the author say more with fewer words. 
  • Seasons and weather conditions are used to evoke something specific in the reader. For example, spring is usually associated with happiness, summer with passion and romance, autumn with aging, and winter with death. Rain, fog, and other weather conditions are also used to evoke something specific.

Big Ideas

Those are the most relevant ideas expressed in the book that we’ll explore together.

  1. Understand the Fundamental Elements of Literature
  2. The Quest Structure is Everywhere
  3. Symbolism is Free of Interpretation 
  4. Watch for Literary References 
  5. Characters’ Traits & Settings Have their Purpose
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Let’s explore them together now:

Big Idea #1: Understand the Fundamental Elements of Literature

Literature work is like an iceberg; what you see on the surface is not everything that exists. In order to better understand how literature works, it’s important that you understand the most frequent elements that are used by writers in their works. 

Those elements are:

  • Symbols
  • Memory 
  • Patterns

Writers use those elements to enrich the reading experience and to keep you coming back to read their works and to provide other levels of reading. 

The majority of people only get to the surface of their works and can only grasp the first level of reading (the actual story). To become a proficient reader, though, you should understand reading from an emotional level as well.

A Relatable Example

Let’s make an example of the various literary elements that evoke an emotional connection to the work from the reader’s side.


The use of memory is where the reader makes connections between that specific book he is reading and others he’s already read so that he makes a comparison between them. 

The typical Professor always has the feeling he has already encountered a particular scene because he typically reads lots of books, that’s why professors always wonder, “where did I read this before?” 


Symbols are used by the author to represent something in particular. Whenever in the presence of a symbol, the reader should ask himself what a particular object, figure, or event stands for in the plot. 


Patterns are details, ideas, characters, events, or objects that seem to appear again and again during the story. 

Patterns are nothing but a reflection of archetypes that are the original model from where similar things are patterned after. If you read enough, you will know how to look and where to look.

Big Idea #2: The Quest Structure is Everywhere 

Every little story that you have encountered or will encounter in your life is nothing but an addition to the one single greatest story. 

That story is what makes us human beings in this life, and is generally linked to survival and reproduction. That’s the structure of almost every story that has ever been written:

1: There is a hero;

2: That hero needs to go to a specific place or destination for a particular reason;

3: The hero must face some challenges during his path;

4: After he faces the challenges he learns something about him, life or the function of the universe getting an epiphany;

5: The hero generally comes back as a new, transformed person.

This structure is often referred to as the “Hero’s Journey.” The various authors take that conventional structure and change its details to create a new story. 

A Relatable Example

As you can see the pattern in this story structure usually is: 

1: Departure

2: Initiation

3: Return

During the process, the hero changes from the person he is to the one he needs to be. One example of that of Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars,” Frodo in The “Lord of the Rings,” Harry in “Harry Potter,” and so on in many other stories.

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Big Idea #3: Symbolism is Free of Interpretation 

People generally expect symbols to mean something. Some of their meanings can be actually understood, like the presence of a white flag that can signify “don’t shoot,” “giving up,” or “we come in peace.” 

Anyway, some symbolism can’t be reduced to one single thing, and that’s precisely the purpose of a symbol; ambiguity. 

This gives the reader the possibility of limitless interpretations that will be derived with their pre-existing knowledge. This means that the interpretation will largely depend on the individual and thus won’t be standardized. 

A symbolism that has a definite meaning is an allegory instead where things stand for other things on a 1-1 basis and convey a specific message as clearly as possible.

A Relatable Example

For example, George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” is an allegory for the obvious meaning that people that make revolutions and win them, once they get into powerful positions, are corrupted by them, exposing the weak human nature.

An example of symbolism instead can be seen in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. 

He writes about the Mississippi river as being both dangerous, when it provokes a flood that destroys things and kills people, and safe when it represents a road to freedom for the protagonist.

Big Idea #4: Watch for Literary References 

If you didn’t know, all books borrow ideas from each other; thus, no literary work is completely original. 

That phenomenon is called intertextuality and is a widely accepted one both to make a tribute to the greatest writers and also because that’s how human creativity works. 

That’s why readers must reconsider the characters they meet in the novels; that might come from another work.

This entails that often find generally universal messages about the human condition. We find such messages in Biblical references, Christ figures, and references to Shakespeare as well. 

The more you read and become acquainted with literature, the more you’ll catch those references. Writers do this to make you enjoy their work more and so that they can say more with fewer words. 

A Relatable Example

Biblical references

You can find biblical references almost everywhere in American and European literature. Usually, those biblical references relate to characters that are submerged in water and then come back alive as a reference to baptism. 

Some typical references to the Bible are gardens, serpents, milk, plagues, partying of waters, honey, floor, fishes, slavery, 40 days, etc. 

Shakespeares is almost everywhere

Between the 18th and 21st centuries, Shakespeare can be practically found everywhere. In literature, the reference to Shakespeare can be events like women drowning that refer to “Hamlet” or the impossible love between two people, clearly reminding us of “Romeo and Juliet.”

A famous one, for example, is Jane Smiley that in the 1991 novel “A Thousand Acres” refers to “King Lear” by Shakespeare with the acts of greed, gratitude, and love.


In literature, we need myths because they are a way to get to know each other talking about each other. Spartans, Romans, and Greeks myths are present in our literary culture much more than we believe. 

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We need to write about those myths because we want to feel like we have a potential for greatness, even if we are humans. 

The Iliad is a great example of human nature brought into a setting where non-human things are possible, praising heroism, courage, and the fight for noble values. 

Big Idea #5: Characters’ Traits & Settings Have their Purpose

Every story needs a setting to evoke certain emotions in the reader, this means that in novels, the weather is never just weather. 

Water, for example, evokes strong emotions in us because the majority of people are afraid of drowning. That’s why some writers use rain as a way to set scenes with specific moods. 

Seasons are also correlated with specific emotions or concepts. For example, spring is usually associated with happiness, summer with passion and romance, autumn with aging, and winter with death. 

Another important element to notice when reading literature is the physical traits intentionally given to the character by the author. Acquired scars or birth defects can determine what the character’s role is in the novel. 

A Relatable Example

Thomas Hardy has written a novel where the setting he chose is a dark and stormy night. In this case, he used the rain for plot reasons so that the people in the novel would group together when the storm arrived. 

Rain can also be used as a way to symbolically cleanse a specific character or to signify democracy when it falls onto everyone equally. 

An example of a physical trait that gives the character a specific role can be found in Harry Potter’s where his scar signifies he is destined for greatness. 

Conclusion & Takeaway

Literature has definitely more than meets the eye. To really enjoy reading literature as experts do it understand the elements that are often put in the works and read as much as you can. 

Have fun with your discovery process as the more you read and the more enjoyment you will draw from each new book.

My Advice For You

​Since I’m not an expert in literature, I leave you with the advice of the author of reading more and more so that you get more proficient at understanding literature. In the end, practice makes perfect, as many successful people often say. 

This way, you’ll be able to read between the lines of those works and uncover the surety messages that are hiding in plain sight.

About the Author

Thomas C. Foster grew up in West Cornfield, Ohio. He first studied English at Dartmouth College, later continued his studies at Michigan State University. He teaches literature since 1975 and nowadays gives talks and workshops on how to understand literary works.

Reading Suggestions

  • “How to Read Poetry Like a Professor” – Thomas C. Foster
  • “How to Read Novels Like a Professor” – Thomas C. Foster
  • “How to Read a Book” – Mortimer J. Adler
  • “The Kite Runner” – Khaled Hosseini
  • “The Poisonwood Bible” – Barbara Kingsolver

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Armin is an online entrepreneur and writer in the dating, psychology and spirituality areas of the self-help industry.
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