Friday, April 30, 2010

How To Live A Well-Read Life

How To Live A Well-Read Life
Stepping Up The Pyramid Reading Chain

Word, words and more words – I cannot imagine what life would be without W-O-R-D-S. But where do they come from, why are they here, how are they used and, in a word, what do they mean?

Words are power! They are the pegs upon which some civilizations hanged their hats; a human being without words is like a bank without money; a bank without money is not a bank. What banks and humans have in common is the need for currency to operate each of their constituted systems. The bank’s currency is money; the human being’s currency is words. Banks need money; humans need words to carry out our naturally constituted functions.

To paraphrase Thomas Sheridan, an 18th Century British philosopher, “There is such an ultimate connection between words and ideas, that whatever fault or deficiency there may be in one necessarily offsets the other.”

In other words: words and ideas are inextricably interwoven.

Realizing that a cache of words is currency, a necessary part of my intentions to live a quality life, I began to purposely collect them so that I could reach my goals. Forty years ago, in the course of teaching myself how to read, I ran across an interesting word in Mortimer J. Adler’s book on, “How To Read A Book.” The word is syntopical, another dimension in reading totally foreign to me.

Adler coined syntopical to explain the highest level of reading at the college level. The question is whether high schools and colleges teach this level of reading. Or do they simply assign the task without teaching the theory? If one is already out of high school or did not go to college, there is the opportunity to study and learn at home.

Picture what syntopical reading looks like:

If we were to imagine a reading pyramid, we would find “elementary reading” at the bottom, “inspectional reading” on the second tier, “analytical reading” on the third tier, and, at the very top – the fourth tier – “syntopical reading.” Like the food pyramid, the steps in the reading pyramid are cumulative. Each tier or dimension has its own steps and each tier from the bottom up is germane to the tiers other above.

Syntopical reading is moving up the pyramid reading chain towards your own synopsis: what you now know about your subject or question and how you know it.

There are other books on the market with somewhat misleading titles and subtitles on how to read a book, but Adler’s “How To Read A Book” is the best I have found. His is not simply theoretical. His is a critical praxis approach taking the reader from theory to practice. I have another book titled: “How to Read and Why.” In this book Harold Bloom provides synoptic snapshots of books he enjoyed but little or no theory or practice as to how he arrive at the abstracts. About all we can take away from Bloom’s is what he liked about the authors’ stories.

(Maia Ajanaku-Locke is a former schoolteacher, state Department of Human Services caseworker, and daycare center owner who now works at the Memphis Airport Authority for Republic Parking Systems of Memphis. She can be reached at

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos, lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

Three hours with Mortimer Adler on one DVD. A must for libraries and classroom teaching the art of reading.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

ISBN: 978-1-61535-311-8

Thank you,

Max Weismann