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

Chapter 19 – How To Read Social Science (part 2 of 2)


Paradoxically, the very factors we have discussed, the factors which make social science seem easy to read, also make it difficult to read. Consider the last factor mentioned, for instance – the commitment that you as a reader are likely to have to some view of the matter your author is considering. Many readers fear that it would be disloyal to their commitment to stand apart and impersonally question what they are reading. Yet this is necessary whenever you read analytically. Such a stance is implied by the rules of reading, at least by the rules of structural outlining and interpretation. If you are going to answer the first two questions that should be asked of anything you read, you must, as it were, check your opinions at the door. You cannot understand a book if you refuse to hear what it is saying.

The very familiarity of the terms and propositions in social science writing is also an obstacle to understanding. Many social scientists recognize this themselves. They object vigorously to the use of more or less technical terms and concepts in popular journalism and other writings. An example of such a concept is that of the Gross National Product (GNP). In serous economic writing, the concept is employed in a relatively limited sense. But many reporters and columnists, some social scientists say, make the concept do too much work. They use it too widely, without really understanding what it means. Obviously, if the writer of something you are reading is confused about his use of a key term, you, as reader, must be so, too.

Another is that stipulation of usage in the social or behavioral sciences is harder to do. It is one thing to define a circle or an isosceles triangle; it is quite another to define an economic depression or mental health. Even if a social scientist attempts to define such terms, his readers are inclined to question his usage. As a result, the social scientist must continue to struggle with his own terms throughout his work – and his struggle creates problems for his reader.

The most important source of difficulty in reading social science derives from the fact that this field of literature is a mixed, rather than a pure, kind of expository writing. We have seen how history is a mixture of fiction and science, and how we must read it with that in mind. … The situation in social science is quite different. Much social science is a mixture of science, philosophy, and history, often with some fiction thrown in for good measure.

If social science were always the same kind of mixture, we could become familiar with it as we have with history. But this is far from the case. The mixture itself shifts from book to book, and the reader is confronted with the task of identifying the various strands that go to make up what he is reading. These strands may change in the course of a single book as well as in different books. It is no easy job to separate them out.

You will recall that the first step the analytical reader has to take is to answer the question, What kind of book is this? In the case of fiction, that question is relatively easy to answer. In the case of science and philosophy, it is also relatively easy; and even if history is mixed form, at least the reader ordinarily knows that he is reading history. But the various strands that go to make up social science – sometimes interwoven in this pattern, sometimes in that, sometimes in still another – make the question very hard to answer when we are reading a work in the fields involved. The problem, in fact, precisely as difficult as the problem of defining social science. 

Nevertheless, the analytical reader must somehow manage to answer the question. It is not only his first task, but also his most important. If he is able to say what strands go to make up the book he is reading, he will have moved a good way toward understanding it.

Outlining a work in social science poses no special problems, but coming to terms with the author, as we have already suggested, may be extremely difficult, owing to the relative inability of the author to stipulate his usage. Nevertheless, some common understanding of the key terms is usually possible. From terms we move to propositions and arguments, and her again there is no special problem if the book is a good one. But the last question, What of it?, requires considerable restraint on the part of the reader. It is here that the situation we described earlier may occur – namely, the situation in which the reader says, “I cannot fault the author’s conclusions, but I nevertheless disagree with them.” This comes about, of course, because of the prejudgments that the reader is likely to have concerning the author’s approach and his conclusions.


More than once in the course of this chapter we have employed the phrase “social science literature” instead of “social science book.” The reason is that it is customary in social science to read several books about a subject rather than one book for its own sake. … when reading social science, we often have our eye primarily on a particular matter or problem, rather than on a particular author or book. Typically, there is no single, authoritative work on any of these subjects, and we must therefore read several.

The rules of analytical reading are not in themselves applicable to the reading of several works on the same subject. They apply to each of the works that is read, of course, and if you want to read any of them well you have to observe them. But new rules of reading are required as we pass from the third level of reading (analytical reading), to the fourth (syntopical reading). We are now prepared to tackle that fourth level, having come to see, because of this characteristic of social science, the need for it.

Chapter 19 – How To Read Social Science (part 1 of 2)


The concepts and terminology of the social sciences pervade almost everything we read today. … These concepts and this terminology are also reflected in the vast number of current books and articles that may be grouped together under the heading of social criticism. … the literature of social science is not confined to non-fiction. There is also a large and important category of contemporary writing that might be termed social-science fiction. Here the aim is to create artificial models of society.

Furthermore, there is hardly any social, economic, or political problem that has not been tackled by specialists in these fields. … Far from the least important factor in the growing pervasiveness of the social sciences is their introduction at the high school level and in the junior and community colleges.


We have been talking of social science as if it were a single entity. That is hardly the case.

Which, in fact, are the social sciences? One way to answer the question is to see what departments and disciplines universities group under this name. Social science divisions usually include departments of anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology. Why do they not ordinarily include as well schools of law, education, business, social service, and public administration, all of which draw on the concepts and methods of the social sciences for their development? The reason commonly given for the separation of these schools from the social science division is that the main purpose of such schools is to train for professional work outside of the university, while the previously mentioned departments are more exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of systematic knowledge of human society, an activity that usually goes on within the university.

What about psychology? Those social scientists who interpret their field strictly tend to exclude psychology on the grounds that it concerns itself with individual and personal characteristics, while the social sciences proper focus on cultural, institutional, and environmental factors. Those who are less strict … hold that psychology … should be regarded as a social science on the grounds of the inseparability of the individual from his social environment.

What of the behavioral sciences? … As originally used, the term behavioral science included sociology and anthropology and the behavioral aspects of biology, economics, geography, law, psychology and psychiatry, and political science. The accent on behavior served to emphasize observable, measurable behavior capable of being systematically investigated and of producing verifiable findings. Recently, the term behavioral sciences has come to be used almost as a synonym of the term social sciences, but many purists object to this usage.

Finally, what about history? It is acknowledged that the social sciences draw on the study of history for data and for exemplifications of their generalizations. However, … it is not a science in the sense that of itself it yields systematic knowledge of patterns or laws of behavior and development.

Is it possible, then, to define what we mean by social science? We think so, at least for the purposes of this chapter. Such fields as anthropology, economics, politics, and sociology constitute a kind of central core of social science, which almost all social scientists would include in any definition. In addition, we think it would be conceded by most social scientists that much, though not all, of the literature of such fields as law, education, and public administration, and some of the literature of such fields as business and social service, together with a considerable portion of psychological literature, falls within the confines of a reasonable definition. We will assume that such a definition, although admittedly imprecise, is clear to you in what follows.


A great deal of social science writing seems like the easiest possible material to read. The data are often drawn from experiences familiar to the reader – in this respect, social science is like poetry or philosophy – and the style of exposition is usually narrative, already familiar to the reader through his reading of fiction and history.

In addition, we have all become familiar with the jargon of social science and use it often. Such terms … tend to appear in almost every conversation and in almost everything we read.

Consider the word “society” itself. What a chameleon-like word it is, what a host of adjectives can be placed in front of it, while throughout it continues to convey the broad notion of people living together rather than in isolation. … “Social,” as an adjective, is also a word of many and familiar meanings.

The jargon and metaphors of much social science writing together with the deep feeling that often imbues it, make for deceptively easy reading. The references are to matters that are readily familiar to the reader; indeed, he reads or hears about them almost daily. Furthermore, his attitudes and feelings regarding them are usually firmly developed. Philosophy, too, deals with the world as we commonly know it, but we are not ordinarily “committed” on philosophical questions. But on matters with which social science deals, we are likely to have strong opinions.