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.