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


IF you read ths chapter carefully, you will have noticed that, although we spent some time discussing it, we did not really solve what we called the paradox of syntopcial reading. That paradox can be stated thus: Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read. … if you do not know where to start, you cannot read syntopically; and even if you have a rough idea of where to begin, the time required to find the relevant books and relevant passages in those books may exceed the time required to take all of the other steps combined.

Theoretically, you could know the major literature of our tradition so thoroughly that you had a working notion of where every idea is discussed in it. But if you are such a person, you need no help from anybody. … What is needed, therefore, is a reference book that tells you where to go to find the relevant passages on a large number of subjects of interest, without at the same time saying how the passages should be read – without prejudging their meaning or significance. The Syntopicon is an example of such a work. Produced in the 1940’s, it is a topical index to the set of books titled Great Books of the Western World. Under each of some 3,000 topics or subjects, it lists references to pages within the set where that subject is discussed. Some of the references are to passages covering many pages, others are key paragraphs or even parts of paragraphs. No more time is required to find them than is needed to take down the indicated volume and flip through its pages.

The Syntopicon has one major defect, of course. It is an index of just one set of books (albeit a large one), and it gives only a very rough indication of where passages may be found in other books that are not included in the set. Nevertheless, it always provides you with at least a place to start on any syntopical reading project.

It works initiatively by overcoming the initial difficulty that anyone faces when confronted by the classical books of our tradition. These works are a little overpowering. We may wish that we had to read them, but often we do not do so. … A syntopical reading of these major works with the aid of the Syntopicon provides a radically different solution. … It helps us to read in the great books before we have read through them.

Syntopical reading is the great books, with the help of the Syntopicon, may also work suggestively. Starting from the reader’s existing interest in a particular subject, it may arouse or create other interests in related subjects. And once started on an author, it is hard not to explore the context. Before you know it, you have read a good portion of the book.

Finally, syntopical reading with the aid of the Syntopicon works instructively, in three distinct ways. This, in fact, is one of the major benefits of this level of reading.

First, the topic in connection with which the passage is being read serves to give direction to the reader in interpreting the passage. But it does not tell him what the passage means, since the passage may be relevant to the topic in several or many different ways. Hence the reader is called upon to discover precisely what relevance the passage has to the topic. To learn to do this is to acquire a major skill in the art of reading.

Second, the collection of a number of passages on the same topic, but from different works and different authors, serves to sharpen the reader’s interpretation of each passage read.

Third, if syntopical reading is done on a number of different subjects, the fact that the same passage will often be found cited in the Syntopicon under two or more subjects will have its instructive effect. … Such multiple interpretation not only is a basic exercise in the art of reading but also tends to make the mind habitually alert to the many strains of meaning that any rich or complex passage can contain.


As we have seen, there are two main stages of syntopical reading. One is preparatory, and the other is syntopical reading proper. Let us write out all of these steps for review.

  • SURVEYING THE FIELD: Preparatory to Syntopical Reading
  1. Create a tentative bibliography of your subject by recourse to library catalogues, advisors, and bibliographies in books.
  2. Inspect all of the books on the tentative bibliography to ascertain which are germane to your subject, and also to acquire a clearer idea of the subject.

NOTE: These two steps are not, strictly speaking, chronologically distinct; that is, the two steps have an effect on each other, with the second, in particular, serving to modify the first.

  • SYNTOPICAL READING of the Bibliography Amassed in Stage I.
  1. Inspect the books already identified as relevant to your subject in Stage I in order to find the most relevant passages.
  2. Bring the authors to terms by constructing a neutral terminology of the subject that all, or the great majority, of the authors can be interpreted as employing, whether they actually employ the words or not.
  3. Establish a set of questions to which all or most of the authors can be interpreted as giving answers, whether they actually treat the questions explicitly or not.
  4. Define the issues, both major and minor ones, by ranging the opposing answers of authors to the various questions on one side of an issue or another. You should remember that an issue does not always exist explicitly between or among authors, but that it sometimes has to be constructed by interpretation of the authors’ views on matters that may not have been their primary concern.
  5. Analyze the discussion by ordering the questions and issues in such a way as to throw maximum light on the subject. More general issues should precede less general ones, and relations among issues should be clearly indicated.

    NOTE: Dialectical detachment or objectivity should, ideally, be maintained throughout. One way to insure this is always to accompany an interpretation of an author’s views on an issue with an actual quotation from his text.