How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor

How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Motif: the 2016 presidential election

Throughout the book, Foster returns repeatedly to discussions of the 2016 U.S. election. This motif functions as a key example of what Foster fears could become a worrying trend. Without explicitly endorsing any political candidate or party, Foster raises concerns that the 2016 election was impacted by individuals who had been misinformed and duped by false information. Effectively, the election no longer functioned as a real example of democracy in action, because individuals were not making free and informed choices when they cast their vote. Malicious actors (including hackers, Russian agents, and others) deliberately tried to sway voting behavior, and their success or failure rested on how easily the American public could be deceived. Foster uses the election as a motif in order to lend urgency to his argument and provide a cautionary tale to readers.

Symbol: the grizzly in Coming Into the Country

When discussing the impact of structure in nonfiction books, Foster provides a case study using John McPhee's book Coming Into the Country. This book opens with an encounter with a grizzly bear, and bears become a motif that creates structure within the book, liberating the author from relying on a strictly chronological structure (which would likely be less compelling to readers). The grizzly symbolizes the artistry of nonfiction writers. A naïve reader might think that nonfiction writers simply relay events in the order that they happened and communicate "just the facts." Part of Foster's project in the book is to elevate and highlight the skills it takes to produce a truly great work of nonfiction. McPhee's grizzly symbolizes how nonfiction writers can create engaging and enjoyable books, and it also symbolizes how a trained literary critic like Foster can uncover these meanings and patterns.

Motif: journalism and news stories

Foster's book covers many different types of nonfiction, but it returns repeatedly to journalism and the news. The use of this motif signals what is important to Foster about writing about nonfiction, as well as different scales of urgency. If a popular book of history or biography contained false or misleading information, that would be troubling but likely not disastrous. These types of nonfiction often deal with events from further back in the past (unlike news, which typically reports on recent or current events), and even the bestselling biography reaches a much smaller population than the daily news. When news starts to contain false, highly biased, or misleading information, the dangers that this information will impact the behavior of individuals become much higher. Therefore, journalism is a special type of nonfiction that requires particular attention and scrutiny, and Foster uses journalism as a motif to establish this significance.

Symbol: Huffington Post Headline

In his discussion of social media and online sources, Foster discusses the example of a Huffington Post article that ran with the headline "Kellyanne Shreds Jim Acosta" (pg. 260). For Foster, this headline symbolizes the toxic culture of online news media, where writing is driven by a desire for attention and shock value rather than a fair and balanced representation of events. Foster dislikes the use of the word "shreds" because it is exaggerated, unclear, and designed to be provocative. While this headline is one specific example, it is symbolic of a broader trend, and also of Foster's general dislike and mistrust of online sources.

Motif: Watergate Scandal

At various points in the book, Foster refers to the Watergate scandal (an American political scandal that took place in the 1970s and ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon). Foster relies on this motif because it allows him to illustrate the connection between nonfiction and a healthy democracy. Foster accepts that there will always be instances of corruption and misdeeds, but when Watergate occurred, nonfiction (in the form of investigative journalism, and then a nonfiction book) played a role in bringing these events to light and ensuring accountability. By using Watergate as a motif, Foster establishes a baseline for how nonfiction should work and how it can ensure the success of a democratic republic. It also becomes important to contrast with later examples of how much more corrupt recent nonfiction (especially online and social media sources) has become, and how it now enables rather than uncovering deceit and criminal activity.