Chapter 20 – The Fourth Level of Reading: Syntopical Reading (part 1 of 4)

PART FOUR: The Ultimate Goals of Reading


So far we have not said anything specific about how to read two or more books on the same subject. … Knowing that more than one book is relevant to a particular question is the first requirement in any project of syntopical reading. Knowing which books should be read, in a general way, is the second requirement. The second requirement is a great deal harder to satisfy than the first.

The difficulty becomes evident as soon as we examine the phrase “two or more books on the same subject.” What do we mean by “same subject”? Perhaps this is clear enough when the subject is a single historical period or event, but in hardly any other sphere is there much clarity to be found. Gone With the Wind and War and Peace are both novels about a great war – but there, of the most part, the resemblance stops. Stendal’s The Charterhouse of Parma is “about” the same conflict – that is, the Napoleonic Wars – that Tolstoy’s novel is “about.” But of course neither is about the war, or indeed about war in general, as such.

You could have anticipated that this situation would obtain in the case of fiction. It is inherent in the fact that the novelist does not communicate in the same way that n expository writer does. But the situation obtains in the case of expository works, as well.

Suppose, for example, that you are interested in reading about the idea of love. Since the literature of lave is vast, you would have relatively little difficulty in creating a bibliography of books to read. Suppose that you have done that, by asking advisors, by searching through the card catalogue of a good library, and by examining the bibliography in a good scholarly treatise on the subject. And suppose in addition that you have confined yourself to expository works, despite the undoubted interest of novelists and poets on the subject. (We will explain why it would be advisable to do this later) You now begin to examine the books in your bibliography. What do you find?

Even a cursory perusal reveals a very great range of reference. There is hardly a single human action that has not been called – in one way or another – an act of love. … Confronted with this enormous range of reference, how are we to state what the subject is that we are investigating? Can we even be sure that there is a single subject?

A curious paradox is involved in any project of syntopical reading. Although this level of reading is defined as the reading of two or more books on the same subject, which implies that the identification of the subject matter occurs before the reading begins, it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it. In the case of love, you might have to read a dozen or a hundred works before you could decide what you were reading about. And when you had done that, you might have to concluded that half of the works you had read were not on the subject at all.


We have stated more than once that the levels of reading are cumulative, that a higher level includes all of those that precede or like below it. It is now time to explain what that means in the case of syntopical reading.

You will recall that in explaining the relationship between inspectional reading and analytical reading, we pointed out that the two steps in inspectional reading – first, skimming; and second, superficial reading – anticipated the first two steps in analytical reading. Skimming helps to prepare you for the first step of analytical reading, in the course of which you identify the subject matter of whatever you are reading, state what kind of book it is, and outline its structure. Superficial reading, while it is also helpful in that first step of analytical reading, is primarily a preparation for the second step, when you are called upon to interpret a books’ contents by coming to terms with the author, stating his propositions, and following his arguments.

In a somewhat analogous fashion, both inspectional and analytical reading can be considered as anticipations or preparations for syntopical reading. It is here, in fact, that inspectional reading comes into its own as a major tool or instrument for the reader.

Let us suppose once more that you have a bibliography of a hundred or so titles, all of which appear to be on the subject of love. … But to read a hundred books analytically might well take you ten years. … Some short cut is obviously necessary, in the face of the paradox we have mentioned concerning syntopical reading.

That short cut is provided by your skill in inspectional reading. The first thing to do when you have amassed your bibliography is to inspect all of the books on your list. You should not read any of them analytically before inspecting all of them. Inspectional reading will not acquaint you with all of the intricacies of the subject matter, or with all of the insights that your authors can provide, but it will perform two essential functions. First, it will give you a clear enough idea of your subject so that your subsequent analytical reading of some of the books on the list is productive. And second, it will allow you to cut down your bibliography to a more manageable size.

The skillful inspectional reader does more than classify a book in his mental card catalogue, and achieve a superficial knowledge of its contents. He also discovers, in the very short time it takes him to inspect it, whether the book says something important about his subject or not. He may not yet know what that something is precisely – that discovery will probably have to wait for another reading. But he has learned one of two things. Either the book is one to which he must return for light, or it is one that, no matter how enjoyable or informative, contains no enlightenment and therefore does not have to be read again.

There is a reason why this advice is often unheeded. … Thinking they can collapse these two steps into one, they end up reading everything at the same rate, which may be either too fast or too slow for a particular work, but in any event is wrong for most of the books they read.

Once you have identified, by inspection, the books that are relevant to your subject matter, you can then proceed to read them syntopically. Note that in the last sentence we did say “proceed to read them analytically,” as you might have expected. In a sense, of course, you do have to read each of the individual works that, together, constitute the literature of your subject, with those skills that you acquired by applying the rules of analytical reading. But it must never be forgotten that the art of analytical reading applies to the reading of a single book, when understanding of that book is the aim in view. As we will see, the aim in syntopical reading is quite different