How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Quotes and Analysis

We are so locked into our views that we cannot see facts in front of us. We become incapable of admitting that someone with a different viewpoint might be correct about, well, anything. Worse, we begin seeing all information as either belonging to our tribe or the opposing one.

pg. xiii

Foster uses this quotation early in his book to establish the stakes of his argument and the impetus for his undertaking the project of exploring nonfiction. Without explicitly mentioning the political climate of the United States during the Trump presidency, Foster alludes to a country that is highly polarized and divided. Strong and divergent opinions are not inherently a problem, but Foster points clearly to the problem they are causing: individuals project their biases onto the information they receive, and they become inherently suspicious of ideas stemming from sources associated with differing viewpoints. This quotation shows the urgency and the worry Foster feels when he looks at the world, as well as his belief that if people can be taught to properly engage with written sources, they can be less subject to bias and prejudice.

We learn to trust our textbooks, if for no other reason than we need to pass the upcoming test. That strategy serves us well during our schooldays but it doesn't necessarily translate well to the world of general nonfiction.

pg. 3

Foster uses this quotation to illustrate why most people have a different relationship with nonfiction than with other written sources. As children, most people encounter different types of written sources and learn received wisdom about these sources. Most people are taught that fiction, poetry, and drama are "made-up,", and they may be encouraged to engage with them through questioning certain aspects of the text (is the narrator telling the truth, for example). On the other hand, most people first encounter nonfiction through textbooks or newspaper articles, and these sources are seemingly objective and true. Not only is there less impetus to question these sources, but young students may also be explicitly discouraged from doing so, lest they be perceived as challenging authority. The quotation shows Foster being self-aware as an educator by acknowledging that some education systems actually discourage people from being critical readers; his work is now to undermine those assumptions.

Every form of human communication has a basic grammar, a set of rules of the road that will govern how information is offered to readers. So if you understand that grammar, that set of rules and practices, you can make your way down that road a little faster.

pg. 19-20

This quotation reveals a key claim that drives Foster to do the work that he does, and it also explains why he structures his book in a particular fashion. Foster's series of books provide readers with a practical guide to understanding different literary forms, because of this belief that understanding the "grammar" of that form (conventions and common features) will empower the reader to engage more confidently and have a deeper reading experience. In the case of a form like poetry, understanding this grammar might primarily translate in to the reader have a clearer understanding and better appreciation. For a form like nonfiction, readers having access to the grammar of the form has an almost ethical purpose, as it can help to safeguard a reader from being tricked or manipulated. Because of this importance, Foster spends the first part of his book discussing features of nonfiction work (such as prologue, index, and appendix). This content is factual, but it gives a reader a sense of confidence and clarity about interacting with nonfiction texts.

We try, most of us, most of the time. But we'll never escape who we are. A lot of what we think is, if not hard-wired in us, so entrenched that it might as well be. We can struggle to overcome it or succumb to it, but it's a fact of our existence.

pg. 52

Foster offers this quotation in his discussion of bias, taking the approach that bias is inevitable and not inherently bad. By implying that everyone, even the many writers and readers with good intentions, is still inevitably biased in their viewpoints, Foster deconstructs a common assumption about objectivity and neutrality. Many people are taught to believe that everyone should strive for neutrality and that a "good" source will be totally objective. This point of view is actually dangerous because it may lead to people not constantly be on the lookout for bias if they come to believe that a source is trustworthy. Foster makes the more nuanced argument that a source can be excellent, well worth reading, and still biased. By accepting and even assuming that basically all written sources will have some aspect of bias, Foster liberates readers to read broadly, so long as they remain critical and thoughtful about different sources.

This will surprise almost none of you, but publishing is a fashion industry.

pg. 180

Foster makes this quotation as a way of illustrating the impact of sales and profit on publishing—and, by extension, on many of the nonfiction sources we read. While many readers would see industries such as fashion as clearly being influenced by changes, trends, and fads, this claim might not be as obvious when it comes to written works. Because of the nature of nonfiction, which typically involves presenting facts and evidence, it doesn't seem to be as subjective and fickle as something like what colors are trending. Still, Foster goes on to provide evidence of trends in some types of nonfiction (such as a wave of biographies exploring the wives of famous men). By raising this point, Foster further empowers readers to see works of nonfiction as objects that can be contextualized and deconstructed. They can still be valued and enjoyed, but they should not be above study and examination.

Ultimately, biography and history are merely tools available to writers and the reading public, and like most tools, they have no innate morality. Writers have to supply that, if it is to exist, just as readers must approve or disapprove of the result.

pg. 185

Foster uses this quotation to illustrate his idea of ethical responsibility in regard to nonfiction. Because many readers might naively assume that nonfiction genres like history and biography are inherently "true," they can also believe that these genres are somehow more morally valid than fiction. Since most of us grow up being taught that the truth is good, and lies are bad, fiction and nonfiction can also start to seem morally coded. However, part of Foster's project in the book is to show that when badly written, naively read, or misused, nonfiction can be toxic and insidious. At the same time, the text itself is morally neutral: the moral responsibility rests on writers to engage truthfully, and readers to think for themselves.

Cynicism is a pose—oh, you can't trust any of them—a dismissal of everything we read because some of what we read is misleading or false. Rather, it is more like a social contract: if a piece of writing demonstrates its legitimacy, we will give ourselves fully to it.

pg. 230

In this quotation, Foster makes an important distinction so as to avoid a possible misinterpretation of his argument. Foster is not arguing that everything we read should be dismissed or assumed to be full of lies. This perspective is in fact part of what he is trying to eliminate: a biased individual might rush to decide that everything written by one half of the political spectrum is true, while everything written by the other half is false. Foster is just as opposed to the idea of dismissing a text as he is to blindly embracing it. What he hopes to offer is that, by empowering readers to read thoughtfully and confidently, they can evaluate a text, and if they find it trustworthy, they will be able to embrace it entirely. Essentially, Foster wants readers to give everything they read a fair chance to see if it can stand its ground.

On the web, truth and lie look exactly alike, and the lie can look better with the right packaging. Despite the highest level of educational attainment in history, the world today is as subject to hoax and fraud as it has ever been. Perhaps even more so.

pg. 247

Foster spends most of his book teaching readers how to engage with nonfiction texts in a skeptical but optimistic way. He suggests that while we should never blindly trust anything that we read, we also don't need to succumb to paranoia and assume that (most) writers are out to deliberately deceive or manipulate us. Errors or misrepresentations more commonly arise from mistakes, bias, sloppiness, or even poor structure or writing. However, in the final section of the book, Foster does allow for a darker possibility: there are some individuals who maliciously spread misinformation, and this threat is becoming more common. It is easy for individuals who are well-educated and technologically savvy to assume they would never fall victim to a hoax, but Foster points out that as we become more educated, we also live in a more and more information-saturated world where it is becoming ever harder to discern true from false.

In making such connections, in imaginatively filling in the gaps, we make our reading belong to us; no one in the world will have exactly that understanding but us.

pg. 303-304

For most of the book, Foster relies on an intellectual and ethical argument for why the critical reading of nonfiction is important. However, towards the end, Foster changes tactics and makes a more personal and emotional argument: when readers engage in more active and personalized reading practices, they will have a more authentic, and potentially more enjoyable, experience. Many people might think that fiction or other forms of literature are more pleasurable types of reading, and in fact, a form like a novel relies on enjoyment in order to exist. Someone might read an article or book about current events out of a sense of duty or intellectual interest and persevere even if the reading does not give them much pleasure. Foster encourages a type of reading that is active and therefore highly personal because this will not only protect readers from being deceived or misled: it will also help them enjoy their reading more.

Too often, we consider works of nonfiction as mere conveyances of information, but such thinking does a disservice to both them and us.

pg. 305

Throughout his book, Foster argues that simply treating nonfiction as purely factual is dangerous, because it is actually much more complex and ambiguous than that. It can certainly contain information that is skewed, unreliable, or downright false. At the very end of the book, Foster builds on this argument in order to make the point that treating nonfiction as purely a source of information also denies the complexity and beauty of this type of writing. Because Foster has carefully led readers through a discussion of the strategies and tactics nonfiction writers use to create their texts, readers can begin to see how nonfiction can be just as creative and inspiring as novels and poetry. Ultimately, Foster wants individuals to read nonfiction safely but also joyfully.