Although the title might scare some people off, the truth is, this book is very accessible and entertaining. Indeed, the subtitle, A Jaunty Exploration of the World’s Favorite Literary Form, is accurate. Thomas Foster covers a lot of ground—from the history of the novel and different forms of literary criticism to tips and tricks for how to get the most out of every novel you read—but the journey is pleasant because his voice is humorous and engaging. At one point he says helplessly, “We can’t help it; we are an inference-drawing species.” He’s like a funny, extremely well-read friend.
Clearly, he knows what he’s talking about. He refers to dozens of novels knowledgeably, speaking of them the way most people talk about their family or friends. The net result is a book that is informative, insightful, and inviting.
I like many aspects of this book, particularly how Foster celebrates the benefits that novels’ vicarious experiences afford us: “The novels we read allow us to encounter possible persons, versions of ourselves that we would never see, never permit ourselves to become, in places we can never go and might not care to, while assuring that we get to return home again.” I also love how he emphasizes that what readers bring to the table is as important as what writers have served up. And he knows how vital novels are in our quest for meaning: “For novelists, there is one big idea, always present and always demanding of attention. It goes something like this: what does it mean to be human? How can we conduct our lives to best effect? For many readers, the novel is as close as we ever come to philosophy.” Philosophy isn’t just for college courses, you see.
If this book had been around when I was still teaching every day, I would have made it part of my high school English curriculum. Heck, if it had been around when I studied comparative literature in college, it sure would have been handy. But here’s what I want everyone to know: it’s never too late to understand books better. And this one will help.
(PS—Foster has a companion book: HOW TO READ LITERATURE LIKE A PROFESSOR. My guess is it’s equally worthy.)