What is the difference between reading like a student and reading like a professor?
The combination of using memory, identifying symbols, and recognizing patterns allows a reader to analyze literature in a new light—the way a professor would. If you ignore memory, symbols, and patterns in literature, you will not be able to appreciate a book for everything that it says between the lines.
This book teaches you:
When you read with a powerful memory, you actively look for how the text corresponds to other literary works. You mentally flip through the things you’ve read before and look for similarities (or differences) to the structure, theme, or characters of what you’re reading now.
For example, as you watch the movie Pale Rider starring Clint Eastwood, you might be reminded of the movie Shane from 1953.
These similarities are what critics call intertextuality. Authors use references and parallels to draw connections to previous literary works.
Intertextuality in literature deepens the meaning of the text by drawing on the reader’s expectations.
A great example of intertextuality, an author referencing previous literature, occurs in Tim O’Brien’s novel Going After Cacciato. The novel has three interwoven stories: one, the history of protagonist Paul Berlin’s war experiences; two, an imagined trip to Paris in search of their fellow soldier Cacciato; three, the present night in which Paul Berlin is remembering the first story and inventing the second.
In one part of Berlin’s fantasy trip, he and his squad fall down a hole in the road. They end up in an otherworldly network of tunnels. One character even states that they need to fall back up. As a reader, you are invited to relate this part of the story to when Alice falls down the rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Now that you have made that connection, your reading of the story will be nuanced by that awareness. You might expect that the tunnels the characters find themselves in will be some kind of wonderland for them.
In order to truly read literature like a professor, you need to be on the lookout for intertextual references to “sacred texts,” like Shakespeare, classic fairy tales, ancient myths, and the Bible.
Using recognizable themes or plots from these sacred texts gives the author the chance to use the reader’s associations to say more in their own work with fewer words. And for the reader, recognition of these references enhances the experience of reading current literature, because the modern stories share in the power of the sacred text.
How authors utilize the common sacred texts:
Shakespeare’s work provides a source against which writers can challenge ideas and struggle through timeless questions.
For example, Athol Fugard’s play “Master Harold” … and the Boys uses Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II as a device. Fugard mimics Shakespeare’s plot—in this version, Harry must turn away his black friends in an effort to grow up and become responsible. Fugard invites his audience to question whether choosing to regress toward racism is really the mark of growing up. He challenges Shakespeare’s values, and gives the audience the chance to do the same.
Fairy tales are popular choices for authors to reference because they’re an assumed body of knowledge. Most readers can relate to and recognize the classic fairy tales.
For example, an author could adapt the plot of “Hansel and Gretel” in their work. The story of children far away from home, lost in a forest, and captured by some evil witch in a strange place—you’ve probably seen a version of this in something you’ve read.
References to mythology in literature show that the story goes beyond what is on the page—it is really a story about humanity’s noble yet primal motivations.
For example, Derek Walcott’s Omeros uses parallels to The Iliad and The Odyssey to tell the story of a community of Caribbean fishermen. He knows this community intimately and wants to tell their story in a way that highlights their struggles, as well as their triumphs. The narrative guide of the classic myths allows Walcott to show the nuances of the fishermen’s condition by associating their story with an ancient epic.
Many authors use the Bible to highlight the differences between religious tradition and modern life, or to enhance the reader’s awareness that the story speaks to the tensions and struggles that have existed since the beginning of man.
For example, Ernest Hemingway used the title The Sun Also Rises, which alludes to a passage from the Bible that is about hope and life’s endless cycle. But Hemingways’ book is about hopelessness—it’s about infertility and the feeling that the future will never come. Hemingway’s ironic biblical reference is meant to highlight a key theme for the reader.
When you read with a symbolic mind, you constantly look for metaphors and analogies. You not only see things for what they actually are, but also what they might represent.
Common symbols and their associations:
Some symbols in literature are less commonly used, even unique to a particular novel or author. While it is more challenging to interpret the meaning of a symbol you’ve never seen before, you can still draw on your experiences with previous works of literature as a guide.
And symbols aren’t always objects. Some actions that are commonly used as symbols are:
When interpreting symbols in literature, think of it as an imaginative and intellectual exercise. In order to read like a professor, you have to be able to look beyond the symbol and draw conclusions about how the themes of the novel could be represented there.
In E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, a progressive woman named Adela is taken on an outing to the Marabar Caves by an Indian man named Dr. Aziz. In the cave, Adela has a confusing experience. She runs out of the caves bruised and scared, feeling as though she’s been assaulted. She later discounts her own story, unable to be sure of what transpired in those caves.
The mysterious caves in the story are clearly symbols—but that’s the only thing that’s clear about them. Readers can infer a variety of meanings from the caves. Here are just a few:
A Passage to India is a great work of literature because of its networks of possible meanings and significance. The fact that every reader can bring his own experience to the book and come away with a different interpretation of the caves speaks to the power of its symbols.
When you read to observe patterns, you recognize the similarities between life and books. You look beyond the plot to see how the drama and characters illustrate a truth of human experience.
One of the main benefits of the similarities and connections between literary works is the emergence of archetypes. “Archetype” really just means “pattern,” or the original on which that pattern was based.
Common archetypes and their associations:
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A literature professor is always looking for meaning and significance beyond the text of a novel, poem, or play. Here’s an example:
In the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the protagonist, Walter Lee Younger, moves his African American family into an all-white community. A white man named Mr. Linder comes to Walter with an offer: He wants to buy the Younger family out of their claim on the house. Although the offer is insulting, Walter Lee is forced to consider it. This is one of the play’s primary dramas.
Imagine you’ve just read the play. Would you be surprised to hear your literature professor say that Mr. Lindner is the devil? Would you have come to that conclusion on your own?
If not, that’s okay. That means that you, the student, and your professor have read the same story, but not in the same way. Your professor has had practice analyzing literature and finding its conventions and codes. She has the skills to remember instances of bargaining with the devil in other stories, and connect that pattern to Mr. Lindner through common plot devices and themes.
So what is the difference between reading like a student and reading like a professor?
Memory: When you read with a powerful memory, you actively look for how the text corresponds to other literary works. You mentally flip through the things you’ve read before and look for similarities (or differences) to the structure, theme, or characters of what you’re reading now.
Symbol: When you read with a symbolic mind, you constantly look for **metaphors and analogies. You not only see things for what they actually are, but also what...
Readers who are new to literature might feel as though everything they read is new. But really, there is no such thing as a new story.
All literary works are alive and involved with each other like eels in a barrel. Each time a new eel is created, it squirms its way into the barrel. It is new, but it’s also an eel just like every other one that ever has been or ever will be in the barrel.
Just because an author can’t create anything purely original anymore, doesn’t mean that modern literature is derivative or unimportant. Rather, new literature gains significance from the harmony and dissonance it strikes with what came before.
Once you understand that all stories—no matter the genre—exist together as part of one big story, you can begin to see the patterns and recurrences between them. This is what critics call intertextuality. Authors use references and parallels to draw connections to previous literary works.
Intertextuality in literature deepens the meaning of the text by drawing on the reader’s expectations.
A great example of an author referencing previous literature is Tim O’Brien in his novel Going After Cacciato. The novel has three interwoven stories: one, the history of protagonist Paul Berlin’s war experiences; two, an imagined trip to Paris in search of their fellow soldier Cacciato; three, the present night in which Paul Berlin is remembering the first story and inventing the second.
Paul Berlin’s fantasy trip to Paris is made up of a bunch of stories, each based on or influenced by some novel, story, or historical figure from the past. Tim O’Brien, as the author, knows this. But Paul Berlin, the character, doesn’t. He is simply making up stories the way everyone else does—by drawing on other stories.
For example, in one part of Berlin’s fantasy, he and his squad fall down a hole in the road. They end up in an otherworldly network of tunnels. One character even states that they need to fall back up. As a reader, you are invited to relate this part of the story to when Alice falls...
When you read a novel or watch a film, you want to keep your eyes open for any references to or adaptations of the sacred texts. Practice looking for intertextual references of Shakespeare’s classics.
In the musical film West Side Story, two New York City street gangs are in conflict. The Jets are led by Riff after Tony leaves the gang, and The Sharks are led by Bernardo. One night, Tony and Bernardo’s sister, Maria, meet at a dance and fall in love. Both The Sharks and The Jets are furious, and the conflict reaches a boiling point. Just before Tony and Maria are able to run away together, Tony is shot and killed. Maria holds him in her arms as he dies. The tragedy of Tony’s death is enough to end the conflict between the rival gangs.
This is a musical adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays. Write down which one you think it might be.
Even readers who are new to literature usually know to ask themselves, “Is this a symbol?” The next question they might ask is, “what does it mean?”
One problem with symbols is that they can mean so many different things to different readers. In fact, it is the mark of a great piece of literature when readers and scholars can come to different, even conflicting, interpretations.
(The exception to this rule is allegory. Allegories convey a particular message by associating a symbol with one specific meaning.
Another problem with symbols is that different authors can use the same symbol in many different ways. For example, let’s look at three different rivers from three different authors:
The final problem with symbols is that they aren’t always objects. Actions can also be used as symbols. For example, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” is literally about deciding between two paths. But it has become a universally used graduation poem because it can symbolize choosing your direction in life.
When interpreting symbols in literature, think of it as an imaginative and intellectual exercise. You should actively bring yourself to the encounter with the text. Use your instincts about how the text makes you feel, and...
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Every good story needs a setting, the time and place in which the story takes place. In literature, the setting is not only the backdrop for the story but an integral part of the story itself. The setting of a particular story informs the mood of the story, the attitude of the characters, and the presentation of the themes.
When you begin reading a poem or a novel, take notice right away of any weather that is mentioned. Weather is never only about weather in a piece of literature.
Weather can also act as:
The most popular weather condition employed by authors in literature is rain. Rain has many associations that you should be aware of as a reader:
Of course, other weather has associations, too.
Geography influences a novel’s atmosphere, characters, and plot. Practice using the analytical skills you’ve learned in this chapter to analyze geographical symbols.
In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a young boy, Huck, and an escaped slave, Jim, travel down the Mississippi River on a raft.
In what ways is traveling into the Deep South thematically relevant for Huck and, especially, Jim?
For most readers, recognizing objects as symbols comes easy, but it can be quite difficult to understand that actions can act as symbols, too.
Authors choose the actions that happen in a narrative carefully—each action must serve the plot in a novel, but some will also illuminate larger themes.
Violence is prevalent in literature, but it is important to know that acts of violence are always a symbol for some greater kind of suffering. The range of possibilities for what that suffering might be is too large to generalize. The answer might be psychological, spiritual, historical, social, or political.
In literary violence, the complexities lie in the significance or thematic meaning of the violence itself.
There are two kinds of violence in literature:
The only real difference between these two kinds of literary violence is that in the second type, there is no guilty party other than the author. Even an “accidental” act of violence in a novel has been carefully planned by the author, with a specific purpose in mind.
Whether violence is inflicted by a character within the story or the author crafting the story, the reader should look carefully at what the violence might signify beyond the specific harm done to the specific character.
William Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses is a great example of violence as metaphor in literature. In it, character Ike McCaslin finds out that his grandfather had a daughter by one of his slaves, Eunice. Years later, completely blind to the wrongness of his actions, the grandfather also gets his daughter Tomasina pregnant. Eunice responds by killing herself.
As a reader, of course, we see Eunice’s violence toward herself as a literal act of personal despair. But Faulkner also...
We’ve already covered this notion, but it is worth saying again: All literature exists as part of one big story. Nothing is really new. Although every piece of literature is different, it still interacts with every written work that came before it. In fact, even if an author attempts to avoid referencing any other novels, that avoidance is an interaction in itself.
One of the main benefits of the one big story is the emergence of archetypes. “Archetype” really just means “pattern,” or the original on which that pattern was based. No one knows the original use of archetypes, just like no one knows exactly where ancient myths began. They predate written history.
It doesn’t really matter where they come from, when they began, or how often they’re used. Archetypes grow in strength with each use in literature. They create an aha! moment for the reader—a satisfying moment when we recognize a pattern between what we’re reading now and what we’ve read before.
Archetypes and common patterns are always with us, because they’ve been a part of our collective consciousness for so long. They help writers and readers understand each other because we share knowledge of these archetypes and their role in the one big story.
Anytime a character begins a trip, you should be on the lookout for a quest narrative. This is one type of archetype.
Example: In The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, a young woman named Oedipa travels from San Francisco to Southern California to execute the will of her former lover. Along the way, Oedipa meets a lot of strange and scary characters and ends up in a lot of dangerous situations. By the end, Oedipa has learned to rely on herself and trust her own self-knowledge.
In this novel, Thomas Pynchon presents an...
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Every quest narrative includes a quester, a place to go, a stated reason to go there, challenges along the way, and a real mission that reveals itself in time. Practice identifying these elements in a story.
One day, a young boy named Kip agrees to go to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread for his mom. He chooses to ride his old, one-speed bicycle, of which he is deeply ashamed. When he gets to the store, he is humiliated to see the girl he loves, Karen, in the parking lot. She’s hanging out with a guy named Tony, who has an expensive sports car. Moments later, in the bread aisle, Tony decides to enlist for the military. He has learned his lesson: that he’ll never get what he wants in this town, where people only care about how much money your family has.
In the box below, identify the following elements in this quest narrative: The quester, the place to go, the reason to go there, the obstacles faced, and the self-knowledge acquired:
In life, physical deformities, illnesses, and handicaps are simply that. In literature, however, authors use maladies like scars, diseases, and blindness to enhance the themes at issue in their work.
You should see physical imperfections in literature in symbolic terms to classify a character as different. When you read of a character with a physical marking or handicap in a novel, know that the author means to call attention to the nature of the character or a thematic concern of the novel.
In Elizabethan literature, physical deformity was equated with moral or spiritual depravity. As politically incorrect as it might seem now, a character with a handicap was a sign of God’s displeasure in an Elizabethan novel.
Things have changed in modern literature. Not all physical maladies should be read as a representation of moral shortcomings. Instead, you should see physical markings as:
An intelligent reader will always be on the lookout for irony in literature—when an author plays against expectations. When irony is in play in a novel, every other chapter in this book is irrelevant, because the author will invert the typical meanings of symbols and archetypes.
Some modern writers, like James Joyce and Angela Carter, deal almost exclusively with irony. So as you become more familiar with their work, you will be ready for them to go against your conventional expectations. But how can you spot irony in other works of literature?
If there is a disconnect between your expectation of a story and the reality of how it plays out, it is most likely ironic. The conversation between the expectation and reality deepens the meaning of the work.
Think of irony like jazz music. Before a soloist takes off on a jazzy improvisation, he begins by playing the melody straight. That way, when he starts riffing on that melody, the audience can hear how his changes enhance and play against the basic melody. That kind of dual hearing is what irony does in literature. Our expectations are the melody, and the irony is the solo.
Some kinds of irony in literature:
On your own time, read the story “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield.
(Shortform note: You can find the story online for free here.)
When you’ve finished the story, answer the questions below. Read carefully and practice all of the strategies for interpretation that you’ve learned from this book. Write or type your answers to stay accountable, and don’t look at any other sources for help.
Once you’ve answered the questions for yourself, compare your own answers with some of these other interpretations:
If your responses were anything like these interpretations, you should give yourself a good grade. Here is another, more in-depth interpretation of the story:
When Laura goes down the hill to visit the house of the dead man, she has actually gone into Hades. Laura is a representation of the mythical character Persephone.
That makes Mrs. Sheridan, Laura’s mother, a representation of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility. The proof? Throughout the story, Mrs. Sheridan has a fascination with flowers and her children.
Laura’s adventure down the hill mirrors Persephone’s trip to Hades in many ways: