How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-14


Foster debunks the assumption that autobiography and memoir can be read as objective and factual records. He likens these types of nonfiction to novels written by a first-person narrator: that narrator would often be unreliable. In the case of a memoir or autobiography, "the narrator-protagonists are the authors' presentations of themselves" (pg. 160). Foster also distinguishes between autobiography (similar to a biography in that it endeavors to cover the full scope of a life, but told by the person who lived that life) and memoir (less comprehensive and perhaps focusing on only certain themes or incidents within a life). For example, Thoreau's Walden is a memoir of the time he spent at Walden Pond, and it does not attempt to cover the entirety of his life. Foster provides several examples of foundational texts in the history of the autobiography, including The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (1791), Augustine's Confessions (c. 400 A.D.), and John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). Foster argues that these prominent autobiographies established a focus on "formative experiences and political-spiritual growth" (pg. 164), and laid the groundwork for 20th and 21st-century autobiographies of politicians (especially presidential candidates) and musicians. Foster also points to the special category of the "death memoir" written by someone in the final period of their life (for example, When Breath Becomes Air), and the grief memoir (with Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking as a prominent example). Finally, Foster turns to a discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me (2015) as an inheritor of the legacy of Franklin's autobiography.

Foster moves on to discuss two types of nonfiction that typically synthesize and reflect on events after at least some lapse of time: history and biography. Foster introduces two major categories within history: texts that focus on either significant individuals, significant events, or both, and books about "ordinary men and women caught up in something far larger than themselves" (pg. 175). Foster discusses Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals as examples of the former, and David McCullough's 1776 and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation as examples of the latter. Foster also points out that history and biography respond to trends within the publishing industry, which can lead to periods where books on certain topics (for example, the wives of famous artists and writers) proliferate. Foster challenges the notion that learning about history will inherently prevent it from reoccurring, but he nonetheless makes an impassioned case for reading works of history in order to see patterns and ongoing areas for improvement.

Foster then moves to discuss political writing: after a very brief overview of prominent historical examples of political writing (ranging from Aristotle to Machiavelli), Foster hones in on writing about a current American president. He notes that while books have been written about previous presidents, there has been a particular surge in writing about Donald Trump. In 2018 alone, three significant books were published: Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, James Comey's A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, and Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House. Foster begins with a close examination of Wolff's book, which he characterizes as contentious and unreliable. Many have critiqued the book for containing fictionalized or false information, and Foster agrees that the overall reliability of the book is undermined by doubts about specific claims made within it. Foster critiques Wolff's frequent lack of attribution (where did information or a quote come from?), and his use of omniscient narration that leads to the book reading more like a novel. He does note that much of the information provided by Wolff has been corroborated by other, more circumspect sources, but he worries that Wolff's methods will tarnish ideas of journalistic integrity overall. Overall, Foster shows strong disapproval towards the book, lamenting that it further reinforced political divisions and claiming that Wolff is better characterized as a celebrity gossip columnist than a legitimate journalist.

James Comey, the author of the second book Foster discusses in detail, is a former director of the FBI and was implicated in the 2016 scandal surrounding Hillary Clinton's private email servers, and then the scandal around Trump's response to alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election. Comey was fired by Trump in May 2017, and published his book in 2018, a reflection on his life and career. Foster argues that Comey's book is part hybrid and part political writing, written by an author "forced by circumstances to defend his reputation" (pg. 189), and further, that the response to Comey's book was more driven by predetermined opinions of Comey than to the text itself. As a corrective, Foster provides some opinions on the style, argumentation, and attribution practices of the book, while also critiquing the way Comey portrays two pivotal decisions he made, which may, in turn, have impacted the outcome of the 2016 election (revealing or withholding information about potential Russian interference, and revealing or withholding information about a cache of Clinton emails found on a personal laptop). Foster is careful not to critique the decisions themselves, but rather the way in which Comey writes about them, arguing that Comey is unpersuasive in how he situates and justifies these decisions.

Foster then turns to Woodward's book, linking the number of books related to Trump's campaign and time in the White House to the tendency for his key staff to gossip and share information with journalists. Woodward, unlike either Wolff or Comey, has strong credentials as a journalist, and Foster praises the way in which Woodward handles sources, quotes, and attributions. Foster also points out the Woodward avoids seeking out (or creating) sensationalistic details, focusing instead on reporting information that had already been rumored or reported elsewhere. Foster wraps up his discussion of political writing by noting that Michelle Obama's Becoming outsold not only all of the other political books but also went on to become the bestselling memoir of all time.

After concluding the discussion of political writing, Foster turns to science and tech writing, noting that there is a great deal of excellent science writing available on a wide variety of topics, and yet that some American readers reject the validity of expert scientific information. Foster laments this trend, while also characterizing it as uniquely American. He positions scientific writing as up against this significant challenge, and he goes on to identify three general types of science writing: expert testimony (a professional scientist describing significant discoveries in their field), amateur profile (written by a non-scientist, describing scientist(s) and their discoveries) and journalistic compilation (a writer surveys a field, usually a new one, to report on its significance). In any event, whoever is doing the writing has access to expertise: either their own or that of the scientists they write about. Some science writers will focus on a fairly tightly defined area of expertise, while others (for example, Malcolm Gladwell) will create a sort of "brand" while writing on a wide range of subjects. Writing about specialized science topics in a way that is intelligible to a broad readership is a special skill, and establishing the validity of science writing as a non-expert can be tricky. Foster recommends examining the credentials of the source (who may be the writer, or the scientists cited if the book is written by a non-scientist writer), as well as the evidence used.

Building on the need to read science writing critically, Foster summarizes his overall model for interrogating a nonfiction source. This involves interrogating the writer (are they trustworthy, professional, and possessing appropriate credentials?), interrogating the sources (have experts been consulted, are sources presented honestly, and is the source material applied in a way that makes sense?), interrogating the data (looking for incomplete, misrepresented or overly limited data), interrogating the argument (does it appeal to reason, does the evidence support the premise, does it gloss over any important details?), and finally, interrogating bias (is bias open or hidden, does it affect judgment, and are opposing viewpoints represented fairly?).


When discussing the genres of autobiography and memoir, Foster displays his highly educated perspective by pulling prominent examples from the history of Western thought and writing. This genre is a particularly interesting case within the family of nonfiction literature because it draws to the fore assumptions about the individual self and how someone thinks about the self. As Thomas Couser explains, the pronoun "I" is "Typographically identical with the Roman numeral 1 and phonemically identical with the word [eye], it puns on the notion of a single point of view. These fortuitous features of our linguistic system reinforce our sense of the privileged status of the self, and the language seems to encourage us to conceive of the first person as unique, integral, and independent" (pg. 13). While Foster does situate memoir and autobiography within this context, he also takes a fairly traditional viewpoint of which memoirs and autobiographies he highlights, focusing mainly on the life writing of well-known or established individuals. With the growth in this genre, "in the burgeoning genre of creative nonfiction, autobiography seems to liberate itself from the shackles of its own conventions, no longer conceiving itself as an exacting and rule-based genre that relies on notions of moral certainty, public achievement, and objective and useful knowledge" (Dibattista & Wittman, pg. 18). Given that Foster will later deplore the rise of social media and online sources, he may also be skeptical of autobiography and memoir as genres open to anyone who wants to tell their life story.

Foster's discussion of history and biography reflects parallel interests in forming the integrity of individuals and building the conscience of the nation. His discussion of these genres is somewhat American-centered, but this focus allows him to maintain the structural integrity of his book, and also to use these genres to connect back to his themes of moral responsibility. Foster chooses works of history and biography that contain inspiring stories of achievement, or have a connection to American history. From there, Foster's structure can flow seamlessly into his section on political writing, a key component of the book. Foster does a closer analysis here than he does with some other genres, providing a side-by-side comparison of three nonfiction books focused on Donald Trump and his presidency. Foster walks a fine narrative line of keeping his discussion confined to the books themselves, rather than the subject matter of the book. He does not voice his own personal opinions of Trump and his supporters, but he instead carefully analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each book from a rhetorical and stylistic perspective. Within the confines of these topics, Foster makes it clear which writers he respects and which he does not. While voicing his own opinions, Foster carefully supports his perspective with evidence and grounds it in the critique of sloppy and even dangerous nonfiction writing.

Foster's discussion of science writing likewise allows him to explore the American political context and raise concerns about what happens when readers do not engage critically. His concern here is less with readers misreading science nonfiction than readers who would refuse to engage with science writing altogether. Science writing in particular is a genre where rejections of expertise are particularly stark and troubling. From this discussion, Foster can pivot into summarizing his overall method for readers to engage critically with nonfiction sources. While Foster's book provides information, analysis, and entertainment, it also has a very pragmatic function as a practical resource. By providing these types of rubrics and checklists, Foster makes it clear that he wants his book to be used by readers as they engage with nonfiction sources.