The need for readers to think critically when reading nonfiction is likely the most dominant theme of the book. Foster opens his book with the claim that most nonfiction is valid and useful—but some of it is potentially misleading and destructive. Since no one is going to prevent the latter from existing in the world (particularly with online sources), it becomes the responsibility of the reader to thoughtfully and intentionally evaluate what they read so that they can decide what to trust and what to discard. The book functions as a model and guide to give readers both the confidence and tools they need to engage in this more active and critical reading practice.
American politics is both an explicit and implicit theme in the book. Foster argues that the current climate of polarized political opinions and mistrust of other viewpoints limits the chances of being exposed to perspectives different from our own. Many of the examples Foster uses throughout the book to support his discussion of evidence and nonfiction are also drawn from American politics. For example, Part 1 of the book ends with a discussion of "fake news" and the role it played in the 2016 U.S. election. Foster also raises concerns about hackers and individuals located outside of the U.S. who purposefully spread misinformation in order to impact American elections and the functioning of a healthy democracy. The urgency of Foster's argument about nonfiction is heightened because of how he presents inaccurate information as posing a risk to a healthy democracy.
Foster does point out that there has always been false and biased information available—but as the total volume of information increases, the percentage of bad information also rises. In the current Information Age, where individuals are constantly bombarded by information from a wide variety of sources, it can be easier to become overwhelmed and start to unthinkingly trust some sources while mindlessly dismissing others. The Internet and social media also make it harder to discern where a source is coming from and removes some of the quality checks that many more traditional sources would use (for example, fact-checking, peer review, etc.). Reading nonfiction skeptically is more important than ever because of the proliferation and diversity of information available.
Parallels Between Nonfiction and Other Types of Literature
While most of the book focuses on nonfiction, Foster repeatedly draws parallels between nonfiction and other types of literature, such as novels, poetry, and drama. For example, to discuss reliability and trust, he mentions novels with unreliable narrators, and to explain the function of a Prologue or Preface in a nonfiction book, he makes a comparison to Greek drama. These parallels provide a helpful context for a reader who might be more familiar with studying other types of literature (or have previously read Foster's other books). These comparisons also lay the groundwork for the suggestion Foster makes at the end of the book: that readers should engage in more imaginative reading of nonfiction and read this type of writing in a way similar to how someone might read poetry or fiction.
Authority and Expertise
Throughout the book, Foster encourages readers to reflect on what the author of a work of nonfiction knows about the topic they are writing about. If they claiming to report on the thoughts and feelings of an individual, do they have access to those thoughts or are they making inferences? If they are reporting studies or statistics, do they have the knowledge to appropriately select and evaluate their sources? Foster strongly encourages readers to gain an understanding of the credibility and authority of a writer as a way of evaluating what they are reading, and part of why he is so dubious about sources like Wikipedia and social media is that there is so little control or transparency about the expertise of the individual who is creating the content. However, Foster is not rigid or elitist about what gives someone expertise: he points out that someone can have expertise in one area and not another (for example, he is an expert on literature, but not on medicine), and that expertise can be developed through lived experience rather than academic credentials.
Many people write nonfiction because they want to educate others on a topic or share important information for altruistic purposes. Sometimes nonfiction can also deliberately uncover or expose uncomfortable truths that others might prefer to cover up (Foster discusses the example of the Boston Globe reporting that exposed shocking sex scandals within the Catholic church). However, the book repeatedly points out the different ways in which nonfiction is impacted by self-interest. Authors of memoirs and autobiographies might want to make themselves look good, while journalists might want to win prizes for compelling reporting. Bloggers want their posts to go viral—and nearly everyone wants their work to sell, whether in book, magazine, or newspaper form. This factor of self-interest doesn't necessarily mean that writers will abandon their integrity, but it does mean that they sometimes might have an incentive to do so. Readers should keep this in mind as yet another reason to engage in active and critical reading.
In his book, Foster makes it clear that he sees writers (as well as editors, fact-checkers, etc.) and readers as having a joint responsibility. Writers have a responsibility to portray their sources honestly and transparently, to represent events accurately, and not to deliberately mislead or lie. However, sometimes they will deviate from this responsibility, or perhaps make creative and artistic choices that can make it harder to ascertain exactly what is going on in their writing. Therefore, readers also have a strong responsibility to be active participants in the transfer of knowledge, not just passive consumers. Foster points out that this notion of readerly responsibility is sometimes contrary to the way many people learn to engage with written sources as young students. However, if both readers and writers honor their responsibilities, then healthy and balanced discourse can thrive, and people can learn from a wide variety of interesting information.
How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.