when reading is not just reading

It’s 5:17 p.m., and I’m in the midst of my daily “reading” block. I put it in quotation marks because I also do things other than reading in the strict sense.

My reading block is structured. The first part of it is dharma reading: I continue to study the Buddhist teachings. I put this first as a sign to myself that, because it concerns my spiritual welfare and my ultimate good, it is the highest priority. (Whether I truly live that outlook in the rest of my life is less clear.) Right now I’m reading The Four Noble Truths by Geshe Tashi Tsering, a Tibetan monk who, according to the book’s Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data, is a year older than I am: born in 1958.

Second is fiction reading. My current novel is The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, book 2 of the series His Dark Materials. I’m enjoying it, the more so because the series title and the subject matter of the trilogy are taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. I think that’s a fantastic idea for a “young adult” fiction project. The work makes a big deal of the distinction between children and adults—much like my own television series, The Odyssey.

The third part of my reading block is devoted to the Great Books, that is, the Encyclopedia Britannica Great Books of the Western World series, published in 1952. I have a used set of these books (54 volumes) in my library (the word I use to designate our freezer room, which does have three Ikea Billy bookcases standing in it), and I intend to read the whole thing, and read it carefully.

The specific task I have left off doing just now is, what’s the word, processing Aristotle’s Poetics. For my reading of the Great Books is not just about reading. I read the books with a yellow highlighter (I use Sharpie highlighters made in the United States), and I highlight them in a specific way. I highlight complete sentences in such a way as to compress the book into a condensed, Reader’s Digest version of itself. In effect I read each book as an editor, which makes me pay careful attention to what I’m reading.

Cover of Aristotle's Poetics, Penguin edition

I’m just about done with you, Aristotle

Highlighting done, I then type the highlighted text into a Word document, one document for each book. Now I have my own Reader’s Digest version—but I’m still not done. There is a final step.

One of the exciting parts of the Brittanica Great Books series is a pair of volumes near the beginning of the set: volumes 2 and 3 constitute the Syntopicon of the Great Books. It’s a word formed from Greek words to mean “a collection of the topics.” The editor of the Syntopicon, Mortimer J. Adler, along with his staff, combed through all the Great Books to identify the ideas or topics that they addressed in each part, and created a kind of concordance that lets you find all the places in the whole set of books where each topic is treated. It’s an amazing, one-of-a-kind thing, and represents a huge amount of intellectual labor. For my own part, I decided to create a kind of Syntopicon of my own—a set of Word documents that mirrors the topics in the Syntopicon. The final phase of my reading process is to go through my newly typed condensed book, copy each part of it, and paste each part into the relevant Syntopicon documents by topic.

This is the process I’m now involved with in Aristotle’s Poetics. Some parts of this I’ve pasted into my document for Tragedy; other parts I’ve pasted into my document for Poetry; other parts I’ve pasted into my document for Comedy. And so on. I call this process indexing. When I have copied and pasted all the passages in a given book, I type at the top of the condensed-book document: “Book completely keyed & indexed.” For me, that book is then done.

As I process different books, my own Syntopicon (or, simply Research, as I call them) documents gradually get fleshed out. For example, my document on Tragedy now contains extracts from 20 different books, from The Anatomy of Story by John Truby to The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.

So: right now it’s Aristotle’s Poetics that occupies the Great Books block of my reading period. It’s quite a short work and I’m most of the way through.

Friends, this is my idea of having fun. It’s a scholarly, librarianlike task that feels profoundly wholesome to me. It’s my own personal library of ideas, and I love the prospect of spending the rest of my life, however much remains to me, doing this.

There’s more to my reading period—and to my life—but I will talk about those things another time.

In the meantime you can view all my book reviews on Goodreads

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