It’s easy to analyze stuff that’s completely made up anyway.

For Christmas I received a book called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, by Thomas Foster. The title is self-explanatory I suppose, but it serves as an introduction to literary analysis.  The main point he makes is that it’s all about pattern recognition–an analysis of a given “text” (“text” being used in the academic sense of “anything”) is done by recognizing that this character is like this myth, or legend, or that this weather symbolizes that state of mind.

It is not a bad book, although I think I might already be doing what Foster describes.  Feel free to read through any of my posts critiquing books, movies or video games and see if you agree–I tend to remark when a given story or character reminds me of another one.

It’s probably true of any field, not just literature, that pattern recognition is they key to being good at it.  That’s why I love studying history; you start to see recurring behavior patterns and possibly even can learn something from them.  Being able to notice when thing x is like thing y is a highly important skill.  It’s also a relatively easy one to develop–all you need to do is see a lot of stuff and remember it.

One claim Foster makes is that “there is only one story” in the world, and it’s about “everything”.  This is the sort of statement that’s so generic and unfalsifiable it seems useless.  And yes, I know about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the “monomyth”.  I don’t doubt that the vast majority of stories share the same fundamental theme (I’ve even blogged about it), but I think saying there is only one oversimplifies, and saying it’s about “everything” is just a cop-out.  The Masque of the Red Death and Watership Down are totally not the same story.

That’s not to say it’s a bad book; Foster’s writing is light and witty, and he seems like he would be a fun guy with whom to chat about books. As you can doubtless tell, I enjoy that sort of thing.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much better the world might be if armchair analysts of literature–myself included–would redirect their powers of analysis towards things like politics or current affairs.  Imagine what could happen if people could only look at society with the same detached, logical and rigorous search for patterns that they apply to fictional narratives and characters.

I know people–heck, I think I’m one of them–who love morally interesting and complex stories, who is fascinated by exploring possible motivations of the characters in a story–and then turns around and makes simplistic judgments or assertions about real world events and people.  I sometimes think if I were as good at applying my critical faculties to real-life as at literature, I’d be better off.

Anyway, rant over–it’s still an enjoyable book, and despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure I won’t be giving up my fondness for the parlor game that is literary analysis anytime soon.


  1. I didn’t really start getting serious about literary analysis until I was in my late 20s. Being able to apply various different methods for seeing beneath the obvious, to note symbolic meanings that are so often unintentional yet still present – in almost everything – permanently improved my ability to appreciate the experience of living. That may sound excessive, but I don’t think I can find adequate words to express how different My routine has been as a result. And you can switch in and out of this mode of thinking if you need to do housework 😀

    So I would encourage you to try and apply it in “real life” as you said, not just when trying to understand a made up story. We ARE making up our stories, action by action, decision by decision. The stories we learn influence the ones we write with behavior. Then the lives we live inspire more stories. It’s a circle of perception.

    1. Excellent observation. There’s no doubt that literary analysis definitely helps to sharpen a person’s analytical skills.

      You are also right that it’s good to switch gears when doing housework. I know from experience when I’ve gotten lost in thought,,.

  2. Critical thinking is learned in literature, algebra, geometry, history, psychology, sociology, and the hard sciences. The problem is that the critical thinking part of those classes isn’t taught until the third and fourth year of a BA or BS degree, up until then it’s all rote memorization with objective multiple choice tests and that leaves out 80% of the population. Just because a person can read doesn’t mean they are capable of analysis, reflection and comparison. Most people read or watch TV got to movies for escape and entertainment, which is why there are so many shows or movies with the same plots, dialogue and FX acting like a rollercoaster ride instead of making people think.

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