The fourth step in syntopical reading from How To Read A Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is defining the issue.
Excerpts from pages 321-322:
“If a question is clear, and if we can be reasonably certain that authors answer it in different ways—perhaps pro and con—then an issue has been defined.”
“When only two answers are given by all of the authors examined, the issue is a relatively simple one. Often, more than two alternative answers are given to a question. In that case, the opposing answers must be ordered in relation to one another, and the authors who adopt them classified according to their views.”
“Usually differences in answers must be ascribed to different conceptions of the question as often as to different views of the subject. The task of the syntopical reader is to define the issues in such a way as to insure that they are joined as well as they may be.”
We will tackle in the near future, step five, which is analyzing the decisions.
The third step from the book How To Read A Book from Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is getting the questions clear.
Once of the most difficult things, but the best approach, to do in this step is to compose neutral questions in order to answer the problem that has been presented. These questions should be put in an order to help us come up with a solution which allows us to interpret the author so that he can give us an answer to our questions.
These questions that we want answered may not be the same as the authors of these books may recognize. Sometimes the author gives no answer to our questions and we must recognize this.
The first question usually has to do, according to page 320, has to do with “the existence or character of the phenomenon or idea we are investigating. If the author says that the phenomenon exists or that the idea has a certain character, then we may ask further questions of his book. A final set of questions might have to do with the consequences of the answers of the previous questions.”
If you have any interest in syntopical reading and getting answers to the questions that you would like answered in your reading, there is no book better than this.
The second step in syntopical reading from How To Read A Book From Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren is bringing the author to terms. Coming to terms with an author is different in analytical reading as compared to syntopical reading. An excerpt from page 318:
“Thus it is you who must establish the terms, and bring your authors to them rather than the other way around.
This is probably the most difficult step in syntopical reading. What it really come down to is forcing an author to use your language, rather than using his.”
This is quite different for me than normal analytical reading and I must understand as the author’s state that it is an exercise in translation. I must begin to understand all the authors and build up a set of terms that allows me to solve the problem that I am faced with.
It has been over a year since we have discussed syntopical reading here and I thought it might be a good idea to explore the five steps. The first step is to find the relevant passages. Remember that the books are not the priority, but it is your concerns that need to be addressed. One of the most difficult things for me to do with syntopical reading is to narrow my question in what I want to discover through syntopical reading. If I am too broad, then I must address more books than I possible have time for. So my first advice is to narrow your focus.
By inspectionally reading these books, you can uncover the relevant passages and as you read more books syntopically you will be able to further clarify the passages that you need to understand your subject more clearly.
Remember that your main purpose is to make a connection with the author in what he is attempting to get across to the reader and as Adler and Van Doren have previously stated: Come to terms with the author in a different way.
Authors try to summarize the main points in their book. Completing these first four steps should give you enough information to determine if you want or need to read the book at all.
(5) Look Now At The Chapters That Seem To be Pivotal To Its Argument.
Read these carefully as they have summary statements in their opening or closing pages.
(6) Turn The Pages, Dipping In Here And There , Reading A Paragraph Or Two, Sometimes Several Pages In Sequence, Never More Than That.
Please read the last two or three pages or if in an epilogue, the last few pages of the main part of the book. Now you should have ample knowledge about the book, after having spent no more than a few minutes, at most an hour on the book.
The reason you should read the table of contents is to get a sense of the book’s structure and where it is headed. I personally rarely looked at a table of contents but now consider it very valuable in determining if I have interest in the book.
(3) Check the Index
Make a quick estimate of the number of topics covered and the types of books and authors that are referred to. Look up some of the passages that seem to be crucial to the book that are mentioned as terms in the index.