How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Summary and Analysis of What's Going on Around Here-Chapter 1


Foster begins the book with a short preface titled "What's Going on Around Here?" He opens with a bold claim: "We live in an age of deliberate deception." Foster goes on to explain that many nonfiction books are full of useful information, while a few others contain information that is false and toxic. The danger with this situation is that when people notice this misinformation, they respond by becoming distrustful and cynical of all sources. For as long as there has been power, people have tried to obtain and maintain power by spreading information that benefited them, regardless of the veracity of that information. However, by the later 20th century, the culture of "spin and falsehood" (pg. xii) had reached new heights. As skepticism and distrust have increased, individuals are now increasingly reliant on sources that they believe align with their own opinions and world view. Foster terms this the "silo effect." To illustrate this effect, he uses an example where Americans who consumed news from different sources had radically different beliefs about whether or not Donald Trump was being honest about contacts with Russia. Foster believes that the silo effect is dangerous because it encourages people to either blindly trust or blindly dismiss a source; in either case, they are not engaging with it in a rational or thoughtful way.

Foster states that at the time of his writing, "we live in what may be a golden age of nonfiction" (pg. 1). There are more nonfiction sources than ever before, which is partially why it is so important to discern good sources from bad sources. Foster also sees benefits to a multitude of sources because even if sources cover the same topic, they will present different pieces of information and different perspectives. In addition to the abundance of nonfiction sources, individuals are often taught to regard nonfiction as "true" because of the way it is positioned in opposition to novels, poetry, and other types of literature. Foster urges readers to read critically, but also to avoid becoming so skeptical that they dismiss sources without engaging with them. Essentially, we need nonfiction. It teaches us things and it is often nonfiction (especially journalism) that uncovers abuses of power. Foster uses the examples of the Watergate scandal and the scandal around sexual abuse in the Catholic Church to illustrate cases where journalists brought important information to the attention of the public. Foster points out that nonfiction can also share inspiring stories, entertain, amuse, and give us perspectives into interesting events and people. Given all of the potential value nonfiction has to offer, but also the risks that come with it, it is vital that readers learn how to engage with nonfiction in critical ways.

The first step of reading critically is to have a basic understanding of the structure of a nonfiction source. Generally, this structure will be driven by the "four Ps": Problem, Promise, Program, and Platform. Problem is the reason that this piece needs to be written, promise is what the writer offers to readers or tells them they will have by the end of the source, program is how the writer is going to deliver on the promise, and platform is the justification for why this particular writer is the right person to fulfill the promise. Foster then draws a parallel between fiction and nonfiction, stating that works of fiction (and some works of nonfiction) are driven by narrative design, whereas all nonfiction contains some sort of structural design. To illustrate this point about structural design, Foster uses two case studies of nonfiction books: Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001) and Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat (2013). Then, to model a different type of structural design in a different nonfiction genre (self-help), Foster discusses David Brooks's The Road to Character. By providing these examples, Foster introduces readers to the idea that all works of nonfiction will be driven to some sort of structural design; it is important to observe and notice what that structure is, as well as how it impacts the work.


In his previous books, focused on literary genres such as novels and poetry, Foster's goal was to give readers the skills to read confidently and enjoy their reading experiences more fully. Those goals are still at play in Foster's book on nonfiction, but he brings an additional ethical impetus to this new discussion. Right from the start, by comparing unreliable nonfiction sources to bottles of poison, Foster makes it clear that he views untrustworthy sources as deeply dangerous and capable of harm to readers. He also situates the specific context that is of greatest concern to him: the relationship between nonfiction and American politics. Given the context in which he is writing, in the years after the 2016 election, Foster has a particular agenda that extends beyond a general survey of nonfiction. He advocates for a symbiotic relationship between democracy and nonfiction: in an ideal state, nonfiction would enable the ethical functioning of democratic systems and keep citizens well-informed, while at the same time, a balanced political system would encourage citizens to engage with a wide range of sources and perspectives. Foster is fearful because he sees an American society in which nonfiction reinforces biases rather than challenging them, and where citizens are less and less inclined to engage with anything that challenges their preconceptions.

Despite this somewhat grim context, Foster also brings a spirit of optimism to his task. As an educator, he would most likely believe that when people know better, they can do better. And indeed, Foster is fairly optimistic in his viewpoint towards both readers and writers of nonfiction: he assumes they are generally acting in good faith with good intentions but can easily fall short, especially if they are unpracticed or not well trained. Foster's background in education also allows him to be critical of education systems that can encourage rote learning, memorization, and blind trust in authority (i.e. assuming everything in a textbook to be true without verifying). These types of educational systems don't encourage individuals to be good readers or good citizens; what Foster hopes to create instead are individuals who can think for themselves, question what they are told, and come to their own conclusions. Foster's own position as an authority is interesting, given this intention. He is confident in his expertise and in the skills he can teach to his audience, but he doesn't want them to rely on him to give them interpretations of events or sources. In this sense, Foster's endeavor will be successful if his own readers bring the same balanced but critical viewpoint to his book as they would to any nonfiction source.

In order to support his points and see examples of the claims he is making, Foster carefully chooses examples of nonfiction books to discuss. He tends to rely on examples that are either well-known due to a significant impact on current events (such as the Catholic church sex abuse scandals or the Flint water contamination scandals) or have a strong role in contemporary culture, sometimes because of film adaptations (such as Seabiscuit and Hidden Figures). Because of the ethical link Foster wants to establish between nonfiction and integrity, he also tends to choose examples that involve either revelation and accountability of a crime or heinous act, or inspiring stories of overcoming odds and achieving great things. Nonfiction that falls into either of these categories could potentially help to create better citizens and a more just world. In addition to these ethical aspects, Foster also wants to debunk the notion that nonfiction is merely constituted by "facts": he clearly admires the artistry that skilled nonfiction writers bring to their craft, and he wants to highlight their skills. By pointing out structural patterns within nonfiction books, Foster not only equips his readers to be more skilled: he also trains them to notice patterns and be more appreciative of them.