How to read literature like a pro | Thomas Foster

How to read literature like a pro | Thomas Foster

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

Detailed analysis of literature, hidden symbols and meanings. The author presents a framework of reading any work of visual art, from books to comics and movies and even leaflets.

🎨 Impressions

Deep and insightful book.

How I Discovered It

Dementyi in Zettel chat mentioned it, then Sukhovskii advised to read.

Who Should Read It?

Any person who want to begin to understand what is happening in any fiction book should read Thomas Foster’s work.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me

I haven’t read any work of fiction yet ([[Thursday Murder Club]] doesn’t count), but as soon as I start one, I’ll be cautiously looking for hidden symbols. DR. Thomas recommends creating a list of symbols and ideas. That is what I start doing while assembling notes from the book.
Somehow ideas must be transfered and applied to Russian prose or the prose that I know and have read.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

Yet to be found

It’s simply impossible to write or direct in a vacuum.

📒 Ideas

  • When we read a book, we read it differently, analytical skills vary from reader to reader.
    • Acquisition of the language of reading requires time and effort.
    • Literature has its grammar too.
  • When reading, read through the prism of the specific questions. There are various questions are at our grasp:
    • Where did that effect come from? Tears, sadness, anger, etc.
    • Where have I seen that situation? (more often than not in Bible and Shakespeare)
    • What a specific incident tells us thematically? What certain misfortune mean and what are underlying assumption of cause and effect.
  • Several things separate professional reader and amateur:
    • Memory.
    • Symbol.
      • Be patient, look at the past experience of rivers, labors, apple and events to see similarities. Break a piece or writing into manageable chunks take notes, associate, brainstorm.
    • Pattern.
  • Every hero starts his journey from somewhere and quest that he is up to has 5 things:
    • Quester.
    • A place to go.
    • Stated reason to go there.
    • Challenges and trials en route.
    • A real reason to go there.
      • Main reason, usually self-knowledge.
      • Quest is always educational.
  • To recognize the pattern you have to cultivate the talent. It might help, to have an analytical mind but most importantly you need practice: if you read enough and give thought to what you are reading you’ll see patterns, archetypes, recurrences.
  • What we need to do is to become a demanding reader, an old wily professor who sees the elephant before dots are connected.
    • Book is like a forest full of mushrooms some are edible others not and demanding reader knows what to put into his mouth and what to leave aside. That’s why reading Plato is so difficult, we don’t know where to look and what we see. [[Мышление Платона]]
  • If you read a book and think that words are too good to be true, be sure it’s Shakespeare
    • Almost with 100% surety anything you read from a book that sounds familiar is a piece of Shakespeare’s work. So this could also be a reason why English is so popular and is still gaining international ground.
  • Here comes the most important notion, how to attack the text? What does it mean to be a demanding reader?
    • When we sit in front of the novel, looking for underlying ideas is the least we want.
    • How to attack the text? Look for a historical context? Author’s biography.
  • Metaphorical language and analogies are the means of explanations of possibly unexplainable physical and philosophical concepts.
    • Actually, they enable options of explanations one’s ideas to oneself. And also build a connecting bridge from one idea to another.
  • All characters struggle, all families are happy similarly but unhappy differently, Homer defines four great struggles:
    • First — the need to protect family.
    • Second — the need to keep one’s dignity. Achilles.
    • Third — the need to be faithful. Penelope.
    • Fourth — be on a way home.
  • Characters are the product not only of author’s imagination.
    • Author created, reader revives.
  • Reading is a martial art, we are fighting our way from line to line until we reach the last page.
    • Mostly, this is the reason you feel yourself especially good after interesting book. The same feeling comes after an exhausting training session.
      • Reading must be pleasurable in the first place and analytical in the second. It only sounds boring, in practice it’s quite joyful exercise.

Ch. 10

  • A controversial idea that qualities of men and women has been lost to the technological demands which puts excessive demand on intelligent over instinct.
    • Reading is an instinctive venture, primarily based on hunches that Kahneman’s system 1 produces [[Быстрое мышление С1]]


  • Christ is omnipresent.
    • Omnipresent image of the Christ. Even in an old man and the sea, actions of the old man had looked like struggles of the Christ. Hands cut by ropes, when he was dragging the corpse of the fish it looked like cross etc. Falling from the sky, it’s Icarus flight and fall from graces for arrogance.
  • Geography
    • In literature prose when we talk about geography: valleys, rivers, mountains, prairies, glaciers, swamps, chasms, we are talking not about places that are inhabited by people but also spaces that inhabiting humans.[[Chekhov, Два газетчика Рыбкин, человек]]
    • If a character is sent south to do mischief he will rise and nothing bad will occur to him, generally. Because he literally has been told to do that by the author, raw encounter with subconscious.
    • The places of poems and fiction matter. It’s not about setting, the spaces behind geography bring ideas of psychology and history and dynamism. Look at the map next time you read a fiction book. Where adventure take place or better draw a map of movements and watch for positive and negative incidents.

According to Thomas Foster there is only one story to be told, no matter the setting and the context the authors lives in. One story. Everywhere. Always.

  • And what is this one story? Sorry, no one knows. You have to get the idea yourself. Reader is writing his only story with writer while reading a book of fiction.
    • Any person who has ever set a pen on paper thought that he creates something new. Western movie, sci-fi novel, and eventually he ends with one or several plots that has been written before him. Unconsciously. It doesn’t matter, we can’t avoid it. Everything is intercontextual. Look for clues.

  • Shapes deformities, facial features, scars, tattoos, tell us a story about an owner.
    • For example, about musical tastes or
    • personal traits.
  • Other time these things tell us more about people in the story than about owner who has anything that is out of shape.
  • Physical imperfection should always be considered from a symbolic aspect.
    • Sameness doesn’t present us with metaphorical possibilities.
  • Ideas that stand behind a monster are more important.
    • Frankenstein that we see in a movie frightens us from physical standpoint, though from ideological it brings completely different fear. Fear of technical and medical advancement.
      • The pact with the devil, science without ethics, brave new world.
    • When reading about the monster, look for some kind of pact, Faustian pact with the evil.
  • Heart diseases, lyrical, metaphorical. When an author presents us with the character suffering from heart ailment, we have to choose to follow one or the other paths:
    • Look for signification. Some kind evil heart, ugly intentions, e.g., Lolita.
    • Wait for emotional troubles to appear. Cheating, love triangles, etc.
  • Malaria suits bad air symbolism, gossip, evil eyeing, hostile public opinion.

There is no guarantee that you can find hidden meanings and certain symbols, we are used to reading with eyes and when reading for understanding eye hamper the process of decomposition of ideas behind the words. Don't read with your eyes.
It means we have to stop reading from the positions of 21st century and have to take the whole picture into an account. Age, context, historical moment. Such deconstruction pushes the reader to the limits of skepticism and doubt. From this point we are working with a novel, not like with a book of fiction but like with a material in need of deconstruction and later assembling with own understanding.

  • Build a database of symbols of events and your understanding with examples: rain, shared meals, quests, etc.
  • Beware, if a novel bad it can’t be saved no matter how many hidden symbols an author exploits. Though they still have their use, to help us understand the work on a deeper level, look below the surface and obvious.
  • To start working on a novel we have to use what we already know and gradually move forward adding new layers of meaning. Use what you know.
    • Every work opens itself with our progress, don’t stop reading and searching. It is going to teach you along the way.
    • And don’t underestimate yourself, you know more than you think you know.

Final thought

Book must fail or succeed not because it has been written by a well-known author, but due to the quality of the text.

Some links to numerous discussion threads in various communities

Book sprinters