Syntopic reading: What it is and how to do it

Syntopic reading is the 4th level of reading ability. This piece tells you what it is, and how to do it, and how to get there.
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You may think you know how to read, but most people don’t.

‘Wait on!’ you’re grumbling. ‘I’m reading this!’

True! Congratulations, you can do the most basic level of reading.

The levels of reading

There are actually 4 levels of reading. The one that you’re taught in school, is Level 1. That’s when you can read a page and make sense of it. I call it ‘basic’ reading; others call it ‘elementary’ reading. It doesn’t matter whether you completed high school or not, the schooling system doesn’t get you beyond basic reading.

Level 2 is Inspectional Reading. If you’re lucky, you went to a high school that taught you how to ask questions of any kind of text, and how to make a book your own. Inspectional reading is a style of reading where you ‘inspect it: You look at all the parts, read the headings and the first sentences, and generally familiarise yourself with the work. If you do do this type of reading, it’s much more likely that you ‘found it’, rather than were ‘taught’ it. In my case, I stumbled upon the technique while coming to grips with an obscene number of texts while in my earliest days at university.

Level 3 is when you become a Demanding Reader. As a demanding reader, you exert effort. You only use this level of reading from texts from which you want to profit (generally speaking). It requires that you ask particular questions of a text, take notes in a particular way, and make the book your own.

Level 4 is the highest and most demanding type of reading of all: Syntopic Reading. When you’re reading at the Syntopic level, you’re working to synthesise material across a discipline (most of the time). Syntopic reading itself has five levels, requires a different approach to inspection, and is the point at which you make the authors work for you rather than you interpreting them.

If you’re interested in this stuff, go and buy (so you can write in) How to read a book by Mortimer J. Adler.

Syntopical Reading: How to do it

If you’re not interested in reading Adler’s book but you want to know how to conduct syntopical reading, then let me have a moment on the moral high-ground: Shame on you. Go and do your homework.

Ah, that’s better.

Now, let’s get cracking.

Syntopical reading has two phases

Phase 1 is Preparation; Phase 2 is Reading.

Preparation phase

During the preparation phase, you compile a bibliography. It requires a deep survey of the field, and you listing them all for yourself in some fashion. Then, you need to understand which books from that list are not just going to be relevant to you, but are both pertinent and fitting.

Reading phase

You can “just read” them. But what’s the point? You’re just doing basic reading if you just read them.

No, no. Syntopical reading is much deeper than this. Here’s how it works:

  1. Inspect them to find the most relevant passages
  2. Construct a neutral terminology that you will use. Don’t just pick up the terms that the authors use. This forces the authors to come to terms with you and your goals.
  3. Create a set of neutral propositions, which is a list of questions that the authors need to answer.
  4. Spend time defining the issues in the works, by listing all major and minor issues that you identify, on both sides of the subject. You have to interpret the authors, not just copy out what they say. The point is to analyse the work yourself and understand the author’s key positioning, and sometimes that’s not explicit.
  5. Conduct an analysis of the issue by ordering the questions in such a way as to throw the most light onto the subject as possible.

One of the critical problems, of course, is knowing where to start. If you have access to a syntopicon, like Great Books of the Western World, great! However, even if you do have something like that, there’s a good chance that the world has moved on since it was published.

Nevertheless, if you do have access to a syntopicon, that’s an excellent gateway.

The point of syntopic reading is to come to terms with an entire field, issue, argument, or discipline, for whatever purpose you are chasing. It’s important to keep direct quotes from the authors as evidence for your issues identification, and from the questions that they answer, so that you can demonstrate enough distance; this is what Adler terms ‘dialectical detachment’.

In Summary

Syntopical reading is the most demanding level of all four levels of reading. It enables you to force authors to come to terms with your subject, question, argument, or issue. Its benefits are not just academic; once you know how to deploy syntopical reading, you will know how to assess any issue, in any text (not just in books), and to be able to construct a narrative out of a field with relatively little effort. In so doing, you grow not just your general knowledge, but also your mind.