Knowing What to Believe: Thomas C. Foster’s “How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor”

If only what is “fact” were so simple. wikimedia commons/barkeep49/25 August 2016

If only what is “fact” were so simple. wikimedia commons/barkeep49/25 August 2016

I love nonfiction.  If you read The Lois Level regularly,  you know that because nonfiction is featured probably more than 50% of the time.  The funny thing is that I’m also a little insecure about nonfiction for the same reason that I love it: I feel like I don’t know much of anything about it.

So that’s why I was so excited to see How to Read Nonfiction Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster, in Barnes & Noble.  Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t BUY it at Barnes & Noble.  I checked it out from the library like a normal person. 

I’ve been tempted to read some of Foster’s other books, that include How to Read Literature Like a Professor and How to Read Novels Like a Professor, but seriously, I have a bachelor’s degree and roughly the equivalent of a master’s degree in English.  If I didn’t learn what my professors were doing in all of those literature classes, at least one of us has an issue.   

But you know, they didn’t teach us that much about nonfiction in school.  When we did read it, mostly in high school, the point was usually learning about the American republic, so I felt like we were supposed to understand what the works were saying, but we paid little or no attention to the techniques the authors used to say it.  Or write it.

New Criticism and How It Ruined English Class


The fact is that a lot of texts that we read now didn’t even exist when I was in school.  “Critical reading” wasn’t even a thing then.  In fact, if your education happened say, before the turn of the millennium, you probably were mainly taught to study literature in what was called “New Criticism” even though it was pretty outdated by 2000.


New Criticism was a lingering symptom of the Communist “Red Scare” in the late 1950’s, when it suddenly became dangerous to be an academic with an opinion.  So Literature scholarship, in an effort to keep their jobs, decided to only focus on “the text”. 


If you spend all of your time analyzing novels, poetry, or other literature without considering the author or the time period of the text, this is likely the approach that you learned.


This approach was so thoroughly embedded in the curriculum when I came along that I didn’t even know what it was until I was in graduate school.


How Is a Nonfiction Book Put Together?

The first part of How to Read Nonfiction focuses on the structure of a nonfiction book.  Just so you realize: this can be complicated.  The term “nonfiction” is kind of like referring to everything that is made up, including drama, novels, novellas, short stories, and poetry, as the same thing.  If anything, there are even more kinds of nonfiction because nonfiction is something that most people read, on some level, even if they don’t consider themselves “readers”.


Foster takes this challenge on fairly well by explaining all of the different parts of a nonfiction book, that can be confusing, and what you need to look for if you want to understand the book’s purpose.  For example, the thing I always flip to first is the section for notes and works cited in the back.  I want to see how the author does it to know if I can believe what the book has to say. If there isn’t much back there, you’d better quickly figure out where the information from the book is coming from.  So having read How to Read Nonfiction can help you figure it out.


Rhetorical Bias

Foster also discusses the idea of “Rhetorical Bias”.  Don’t you just love the word “Rhetorical”?  It’s one of my favorite words.


The meaning of “Rhetorical Bias” is that you should figure out the author’s underlying attitude toward the topic of the material.  It’s good to read books that have a bias that is different from your own; doing that help’s you grow, but whether you agree or not, you need to understand the author’s point of view.  The “New Criticism” school would have it that literature just falls from the sky in pure, unadulterated form, but that’s not true for anything.


Genres of Nonfiction

In the second part of the book, Foster goes through the main genres and explains how they differ and what to look for.  You will note that he has very specific rhetorical biases toward certain genres, especially social media, but again, reading different points of view is good for you. 


He also explains what to look for to assess the validity of different types of nonfiction and how to check the sources of your sources.  He even briefly gets into publications that are written and dissipated with criminal intent.

He also explains how to read the Internet, which is an important sources of information that didn’t even exist when a decent proportion of the population were in school…or we were in school before it was a part of the curriculum.


To be fair, you are going to glean Foster’s political leanings from this book.  If you disagree with them, try not to get too mad and listen to what he has to say.  He’s also a been male oriented, in my opinion, but I managed to carry on.  If I had written this book, I would have included a lot of example from my own reading which would have gone a different way.


The biggest disappointment for me was the lack of attention he gives to biography and memoir, two of my favorite genres and, I would guess, two of the most read.  Maybe that’s the book I need to write?