Friday, February 12, 2016

A syntopical style of online reading

Where did the morning go?  

I ask myself that question at least twice a week, wondering where a couple hours of my day has gone.

I finally have the answer: I think I’m doing something that’s different, and a little unexpected… I’m “syntopically reading.”   

And I mean that in a very particular way.   “Syntopical reading” isn’t just reading (I’m not just reading the latest John Le Carre novel, although I’d like to), and I’m not just hunting around searching for interesting / cool stuff on the net.  Instead, what seems to be happening is a kind of combined semi-directed investigation on topics of interest.

This is probably one of the biggest surprises from my omphaloskepsis into the depths of my time management. 

As you probably know, I carefully write up what I do each day.  The record has around a 5 minute accuracy and is pretty complete (and before you ask, no, I don’t write all THAT down—there are some categories that show up as *personal* with no further breakdown required). 

Yet, on a typical morning, I’d see:

     4:30 – 5:30 – writing (work, conference paper)
     5:30 – 7:00 -- ?
     7 – 8:15 – prep kids for school; breakfast

…and I’d wonder what happened in that gap.  Why couldn’t I remember?  Don’t worry: I’m not suffering from early onset dementia.  But these breaks are very dream-like gaps in my memory—these episodes are times of nearly continuous activity, but difficult to reconstruct what the point of that time was after the fact. What WAS I doing?  

So I finally broke down and started interrupting myself at 5 minute intervals and writing down exactly what I was doing during those otherwise unaccountable times. 

Found out that it’s a whacked combination of web surfing, reading (online and offline), moving data around, web searches, writing tiny programs to transform text from one format to another, etc etc etc.  

It was all just a ton of apparently arbitrary activities.  Hmmm. What's up with that?  

So then I started writing down the goal I was working on at each 5-minute interruption, not just what I was doing.  The goal timeline looked a bit like this: 

      7:00 - 7:05 - looking up what "Baidarka" is 
     7:05 - 7:10 - looking up "chines" are on kayaks 
     7:10 - 7:15 - checking a map for a nearby ravine 
     7:15 - 7:25 - reading an online book describing
                   traditional Inuit hunting practices in Alaska
     7:25 - 7:35 - looking for and scanning scholarly articles about Inuktitut

That’s when it hit me: I was doing something that I didn’t have a name for.  This wasn't just me skipping around without a point, instead it was a kind of intense, focused behavior that I couldn’t recall because I didn’t recognize it: it was un-nameable.  

My friend Tom Erickson mentioned to me that Mortimer Adler’s notion of “syntopicalreading” is exactly this (although he meant it about ordinary print on crushed-trees kind of books). 

It's a way of reading on a topic that is both broad and deep, covering many different kinds of resources and content types, that leads to an understanding of a topic that is synthesized from all of the materials just read.  

Well, now I have a good description of what I was doing, and a name for it.  Syntopical reading is what I find myself doing in those time gaps.  I read one web page, then do a search to understand more about it--I switch media types, the kinds of things I'm reading, and topics all swirling around.  That often branches to another topic, and another, and another.  

What I find interesting is that it’s NOT all just time-wasting link-following indulgence; instead syntopical-time is when I find myself going deeply into a topic (yesterday’s topic, I discovered from my notes) was trying to understand the connections between French chansons, Gypsy melodies and Balkan scales.   Sure, I sometimes get side-tracked onto YouTube videos, but even they turned out to be important resources for concepts like “Gypsy melody” or “Balkan wedding music.” 

This mini-syntopical-time started as a search to get background information about a band I was about to hear (“Rupa and the April Fishes,” if you’re curious), which led to chansons, and I was off on thematically linked sequence of readings and searches. 

Oddly enough, even for this inveterate notetaker, I find syntopic behavior to be so engaging that I completely forget to take notes.  If I find an extraordinary thing, I might write that down… but the process is wholly absorbing as I switch from reading something, to looking up something I didn’t understand, which often leads to yet another thing. 

If the topic is work-related, the syntopical reading also often involves picking up data from one place and changing it into something else (an activity that takes up a big fraction of all my analysis time)… but when I’m in syntopic-mode, this is all in service of working towards a larger understanding.  I’m not just plugging away on a tiny nit of a problem, but really working the edges of perception to see if I can grok an entire picture at once. 

These syntopic times are, like regular reading, both absorbing and illuminating.  I wonder if this isn’t what 21st century reading is really all about.  I think of monks who spend lifetimes working slowly through manuscripts to gain a deeper knowledge.  That’s one kind of knowing, one way of looking at knowledge over time.

My sense is that syntopic time is qualitatively different: when I’m engaged like this, it's a flow experience and I feel as though I’m moving fast, kayaking over the knowledge stream, looking to pull all of the things I read and data I have into a single, unified cohering understanding.  It doesn’t always work out the way I expect, but when it does, it’s creates the sense of being in the flow, swept away into the river of ideas, and not of this earth.  

This syntopic blend of online reading and search gives a kind of reading-in-depth that hasn’t been possible before.  

No wonder I lose track of time. And what glorious time it is! 


  1. Yes, this. Two further comments: 1) much facilitated by the web, by Google's book scans, and by my employer's vast subscriptions to expensive, paywalled literature and 2) at the end, I feel that I have an understanding but without the note taking and/or leaving all the tabs open, I'm stuck trying to reconstruct when reporting out to others in more formal settings. The history can be used, but, alas, not every hit was useful and what information came from which?


  2. Yesterday at Master Class for writers one published author bemoaned the fact that he really wanted to write about a particular thing but could not because he was not able to experience it himself.

    The published screenwriter beside him said Google.

    THe leader of our group said he was writing about something in Texas in 1836 and he had no intention of ever going back there.

    My chance now: I explained syntopical reading and we could see him lighting up as he caught the import of it.

    I realised I do SR when I am doing a final detail tarting up of a story.

    Never knew it had a name.


    jon tU

  3. This is what was called "berry picking" in one of my MLIS courses-where you keep moving from site to site just like one would do in a berry patch from bush to bush to find the best berries!