How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of Chapters 15-Conclusion


Foster now marks a key turn in his narrative: up until this point, he has been discussing traditional nonfiction sources (usually in print). While these sources definitely merit cautious and critical reading, writers can usually be assumed to be writing in good faith. For Foster, internet sources mark a turn to darker territory. To begin the discussion, Foster provides a history of digital technology. He distinguishes between the internet and the World Wide Web: the former is a network of interconnected computer systems functioning as a hardware host, on which software can be run (the most important collection of which is the World Wide Web). The first commercial use of the internet began in 1989, and the World Wide Web was invented at about the same time, connecting sources of information via hypertext. By 1993, the first commercial web browser was invented. Foster also lists various types of internet sources, including listicles, videos, photos, websites, blogs, social media, discussion boards, e-commerce, and memes.

Of course, the rise of cyberspace meant a vast increase in the amount of information available, but Foster argues that cyberspace inherently facilitated the rise of dark and misleading information, since cyberspace is a neutral, entirely unmediated space, where everything appears equal. With this shift in how information is shared and accessed, Foster implores readers to engage with sources critically and skeptically. He suggests a key differentiator between many traditional and online sources: the former typically have editors who review sources, establish credibility and legitimacy, and of course, often decide what gets printed. Since online sources typically lack this type of mediation, it falls to the readers to engage in this type of evaluation themselves.

Foster goes on to explain that not only do the universalizing and democratizing tendencies of the internet mean that non-experts can achieve equal or greater status than experts, it also means that actual experts can be discredited or dismissed. Wikipedia is an example of this trend; while Foster concedes that it contains mostly accurate information in a useful and accessible format, he highlights an anecdote in which a scholar who was an expert on a particular poet tried to update a Wikipedia page with the most current and accurate research, only to find that information was consistently being replaced with less accurate content. Foster concludes that individuals can certainly use Wikipedia as a starting point for learning about a topic, but they should treat its contents with extreme caution, verify all sources, and check any claims against other sources to ensure that they are reliable.

From there, Foster turns to a discussion of social media, lamenting that social media is often inherently insidious and yet is able to function with virtually no accountability. Social media succeeds based on content that is splashy, attention-grabbing, and provocative, regardless of whether or not that content is accurate. The more attention that is attracted, the more money that can be made from advertisers. There is also a more general aspiration for items (whether posts, memes, or articles) to "go viral" and using hyperbolic language or exaggerated claims can increase the chance of this happening. False information being shared on social media is not simply a problem as a matter of principle: Foster uses the example of a fake 2016 article claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for President. Despite not being true, the article was widely shared and liked on Facebook, almost certainly impacting the voting choice of some users. Foster builds on this to cite how, during the 2016 election, Russian hackers deliberately spread misinformation about Clinton. With bots and trolls propagating this information, fake information leached into political discussions of almost every perspective. Foster also provides a secondary example concerning tampering in the 2017 Alabama special Senate election. Foster argues that, given these trends, learning to read critically is vital for anyone who values preserving democracy.

Foster then turns to a discussion of writing that is deliberately intended to deceive readers. He divides the category of fraud into forgeries (works intended to falsely impersonate writing by another individual) and hoaxes (attempts to present something untrue as if it were true). Foster provides some important examples of literary forgeries and a well-known example of a hoax with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces (2003). He notes that these types of elaborate deceptions may be beyond the power of the average reader to uncover, but critical reading would serve well in these cases as well. Foster also describes cases where well-known journalists were later revealed to have faked some or all of the stories they reported. Finally, he discusses troubling cases in which individuals who were respected as experts (for example, as economists and physicians) misused data, leading to widespread misinformation. For example, the British physician Andrew Wakefield seemingly produced studies connecting vaccines to the onset of autism. While these studies were later disproved, they led to the start of a growing anti-vaccine sentiment. Large corporations often also have a vested interest in hiding or misrepresenting clear data; Foster provides the example of cigarette companies concealing the link between smoking and illness, or many corporations objecting to theories of climate change.

To avoid falling prey to these types of falsehood, Foster recommends that readers check the credentials of anyone being presented as an expert, checking the claims for false logic, and reflecting on who might stand to profit from false or misleading information. Individuals who are spreading misleading information are already doing incalculable damage, not least in making it hard to trust written sources in general. To conclude—and offset his other advice of more research, better fact-checking, and clearer and more skeptical thinking—Foster makes a final recommendation: that readers of nonfiction should use their imagination and engage creatively with these works in a way similar to how they might form a personal and imaginative connection to a novel or poem. By doing so, readers are both more likely to safeguard themselves, and also to have the richest and most enjoyable experience of nonfiction.


Foster has established earlier in his book that sources do not need to be unbiased in order to be valuable, which is important given the strong bias he reveals against online sources and social media. Foster is openly critical of most online sources and fearful of what might happen to American society if these sources become overly dominant. Many of the arguments and examples that Foster presents are compelling, and given his overall focus on skepticism and evidence-based arguments, his cautious approach is understandable. At the same time, it is notable that Foster does not acknowledge that online sources can sometimes provide information more quickly and accurately (especially with the rise of smartphones with video and photo features), and might be able to share stories that would not be widely reported by the mainstream media. Additionally, online platforms and social media have made it possible for individuals to organize effectively in support of political and social causes, and form communities to share resources, information, and support. As Ian Hargreaves writes, "even in the turbulent news media markets of North America there is more than one way of reading what is going on. Optimists see the networked information ecology still emerging around the Internet as a highly promising, collaborative response to the news industry’s previously diagnosed malaise" (Hargreaves pg. 4-5).

Foster does provide persuasive warnings about open sources such as Wikipedia, and he doesn't discredit these types of sources altogether. He also returns to his focus on the threat that unreliable and specious sources pose to American democracy, citing false information that was widely circulated prior to the 2016 American election. Foster is cautious enough to acknowledge that we can never know for sure whether or not this information impacted the election outcome—but we can also never know that it didn't. Even if it didn't sway the election results, there is something inherently distasteful about individuals believing information that is factually and demonstrably false. Foster also effectively links these specific examples to issues that have played out over a longer course of time, such as the rise of information erroneously establishing a connection between childhood vaccinations and autism. Foster's book preceded the global pandemic that began in 2020, but it is fascinating to consider the links between his concerns about the rapid spread of false information online (and difficulty accessing reliable and trustworthy information) and the rumors, misinformation, and click-bait tendencies that achieved a new level of prominence during the coronavirus pandemic.

Given events that occurred after Foster's book was complete, his concerns seem timelier than ever. Foster's desire for a world in which people think, question, and operate from a place of reason rather than fear seems all the more important as new global threats and challenges arise. Nonetheless, Foster chooses to end his book on a note of optimism, advocating for not just critical bu also imaginative reading. While critical reading can ensure intellectual rigor, it ultimately can't capture someone's heart or imagination. As a lover of language, and the experience of being immersed in worlds created through text, Foster returns to his roots. If a reader, by the end of the book, is sufficiently empowered to read confidently and thoughtfully, Foster wants that reader to also be able to fully embrace all the pleasure that nonfiction can offer. Throughout the book, Foster has analyzed but also celebrated nonfiction as a genre, and he does not want readers to lose sight of what a joy it can be to read a great work of nonfiction. Ultimately, if readers love nonfiction, they will also take up the torch of protecting this type of literature from harmful outliers, and Foster's goal in writing his book will have been achieved.