The Syntopticon Project, Or Books About Books

One of the more ambitious projects of Mortimer Adler that he discussed in his masterpiece How To Read A Book [1] was to build a collection of works called the Syntopticon, an catalogue of books about different subjects. As there are so many books that are written, most of which are scarcely read, it is a difficult matter for someone to know what books are essential reading in a given field unless one has a particularly driven approach to it. One would try in vain, for example, to read all the books on Abraham Lincoln, of which there are well more than ten thousand at this point. On the other hand, even with the massive number of books there may not be a massive number of books available about one’s given subject, at least that one is able to easily access. For example, as a graduate student in military history writing about the Prussianization of Chile’s army, I found that there were few texts that had anything worthwhile to say about the matter, most of which I bought and purchased for my library, blindly and at considerable expense, even going to the lengths of purchasing and borrowing books about the context of the Chilean Revolution of 1891 when I happened to visit South America in the autumn of 2009. This is an unsystematic approach, but when one is dealing with obscure subjects about which few people have ever even thought, much less written, one has to be somewhat inventive in trying to gather together enough books about one’s subject material of choice so that one can conduct worthwhile research. Not all topics are so difficult to research. Had I been writing about the causes of Northern victory or Southern defeat, it would have been an easy matter to read and acquire dozens of worthwhile books about the subject.

What is the goal of something like a syntopticon, and what makes it a worthwhile project to wrestle with despite the fact that the publishing of thousands of books a day makes it an immensely difficult challenge to know what books are available on a given topic, much less to read and to weigh and balance which books are the most effective? In part, such a project builds its legitimacy on the worth of knowing what is said about a particular subject in the hope that some aspect of original research or analysis or creativity will be of use. For example, in researching the seemingly dull topic of the Prussianization of the Chilean army, a subject that few people would find compelling, I found some evidence that a diplomatic crisis that occurred nearly simultaneously to the overthrow of Balmaceda’s government with the help of his German military adviser, who also happened to be the Krupp agent for all of South America involved in some corrupt financial dealings and also courting a German-Chilean whose family supported the Parliamentary side in the dispute in the city of Valpariso, which happened to be the base of the Parliamentary forces, helped prompt American efforts to beef up its navy in the 1890’s, which was a major factor in America’s decisive victory over the Spanish in 1898. The long causes of America’s imperial dawn include an obscure diplomatic incident that nearly led to a war between the US and Chile, a war in which Chile was the stronger military power, a matter which I only discovered because it happened to be mentioned as an offhand comment in a book I was reading, leading me to hunt down the sources. Had I not been reading the right book, I might never have discovered that fact at all. A project like the syntopticon is designed to improve the chances that someone would uncover what they are looking for in their historical research, something that is of immense importance even if it is of great difficulty.

How could such a thing be made? It would seem that given the proliferation of small-scale publishing, to the point of print-on-demand self-publishing, that the first barrier that needs to be overcome is that the books that are written need to be read, by someone. I do my part to read many books that are potentially of interest to someone, in the hope that those books that are especially worthwhile of fulsome praise will find other interested readers, which will encourage the writing of good books, because writers are encouraged to write when they are read, and the recognition of good writing by providing an audience and thoughtful response leads to more of the same. Most of the time, I acquire books in a way that is somewhat haphazard. I hear of a particular magazine or publisher who is looking for readers to give reviews, or I am approached by writers who have written books that they want other people to read, and I look at the title of the book and the short description by the author or book agent or publisher and say to myself that it looks like an interesting book to read, worthy of taking up about a day’s worth of free time to read, review, and post online. This is no insignificant commitment, and it is vastly easier to read shorter books than longer ones, which means that I read a lot of books in the 200 page range or lower, and very few books over 500 pages [2], simply because of the time commitment involved. As I finish books, I request more books, and the cycle continues. As one reads more books about a subject, one often has a greater knowledge, and has additional questions that are examined by other books, and so reading books is one of those immensely addictive activities that tends to feed on itself, so long as one can read quickly enough to keep one’s interest from flagging. Not all books are worth being read, but there are many books which are worthy of being read that simply have a hard time finding those people who would take the time to get to know them better, a task which requires communication about books to the sort of people who would want to read them, something which is inefficient even in our social media-obsessed world.

As might be imagined, I write a lot of book reviews. In fact, somewhere between a third to a half of all of the posts that I have made on this particular blog are book reviews, sprinkled with product reviews, album reviews, concert reviews, or movie reviews. More than once friends of mine have approached me to write books about books by collecting those book reviews into manuscript form. There are several reasons why I have not done so yet, but a few of them are fairly straightforward and easy to understand. Among these reasons include the fact that my book reviews are often the least viewed of my writings, only attractive views if I write about a particularly contentious subject in my personal life, or if my review is such that it draws attention from the website of the publishers I review for. I do not know how well-viewed my scholarly book reviews are, because I do not have ready access to those statistics. I do know that as a fairly efficient reader and writer of witty and insightful reviews that I end up reading and reviewing about a book a month for the Naval Historical Institute, to give but one example, and almost that pace for the De Re Militari, once I got in contact with them once again. I am, at least at this stage, very content to read great books about subjects of personal interest and help clear up the backlog at the offices of these scholarly journals, even at the risk of increasing the clutter of my own small bedroom. Yet this immense efficiency in writing works against collecting book reviews into books, since the very intense amount of reading and writing about reading that I do makes it that much more difficult to serve as an editor of my writing about other people’s writing, in the hope that others may want to read what I write about what others have written. And so it is that writing begets more writing, as what one reads becomes something that one often wants to reply to, which in turn creates a text that other people reply to in turn [3]. And so the cycle never ends, for the expression of our thoughts cascade out of us and reverberate in the larger world, inducing us to respond again and again in turn in the great conversations, or pregnant silences, of which our lives are but a small but noisy part.

[1] See, for example:

[2] But see, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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10 Responses to The Syntopticon Project, Or Books About Books

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