Strategic reading, strategic giving
Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book arrived on my doorstep, and as it emerged from the bubble-wrapped envelope, I chuckled. This used edition had the look of a 1970s era hardback with the traditional font selection, oversized white space, and garish coloured dust jacket. Likewise, the stilted language of another generation transported me back in time to when I was first learning to read.
Despite my initial impression, and with patient reading over the summer, the book began to offer glimmers of meaning and applicability to our doctoral course of study.
Practical reading skills need to be acquired and utilized to best distill the message of the book and to discern its potential utility to our doctoral study. Adler discusses how to be a demanding reader. He urges readers to make the book their own by marking it up: “Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can give him.” I don’t have a problem with this: my books generally contain marginalia with my reactions and attitudes, stars, numbers, and exclamation points.
Adler slides from marking up a book to note making – briefly framing the book’s structure and conceptual layout through written notes. Notes about the “shape of the discussion – the discussion that is engaged in by all of the authors” are referred to as dialectical. There is an animated conversation by diverse authors speaking out on similar topics that one must capture, compare, and contrast. It is at this point he alludes to his main purpose in writing. Books read for educational purposes need to be digested syntopically – within the context of other works commenting on similar themes. Reading with this greater effort and heightened perspective is the goal. One can synthesize the work being read and integrate it into one’s library of resources.
In our roles as leaders, we must gain breadth of experience and a 30,000 foot perspective. Reading syntopically assists us in this endeavour. This discipline, to think outside the confines of the moment and to synthesize it with all other data, is fuel for wise leadership development.
This isn’t as strange as it sounds. It’s how we’ve often been taught to read the Bible. We learn not to proof-text individual fragments and construct theologies based on one verse removed from its context, but rather step back to ascertain the overarching message and thrust of the Story. It’s all part of the greater whole.
The same principles Adler teaches in reading also apply to large-scale philanthropy, the area of my doctoral focus. To do good philanthropy, one must avoid getting stuck in the charity swamp, applying band-aids to societal problems but never addressing root causes. We are compelled to take a step back, survey the field, and move upstream with our dollars and our capacity building. We assess the entire field of reference to make positive, constructive change. The funds that are invested then multiply their potential as greater impact results.
This approach to a shrewd and strategic philanthropy urges discipline on the giver. Giving is no longer a reactive, emotional, ad hoc decision but instead is purposefully planned for. It calls for embracing a strategic plan that clearly defines the area of interest. It is wise stewardship.
Readers, as well, need to push forward with similar discipline and purpose. It assumes we will say no to extraneous but tempting research that leads us down rabbit trails, and keep bringing our attention back to the topic and problem at hand.
Adler articulates the main problem many readers will encounter: “Unless you know what books to read, you cannot read syntopically, but unless you can read syntopically, you do not know what to read.” This paralysis in reading, going around and around in circles, is common also in philanthropy – many givers feel overwhelmed by the immensity of the task at hand. How can I decide on a philanthropic strategy when there are so many needs in our world today? How do I prioritize and eliminate those needs that do not align to my strategic vision? It’s a tough challenge, but like reading strategically, we must pare down the vision and refine our focus to handle what is manageable.
Adler’s book introduces an outline to assist readers in approaching their reading syntopically. In his overview, I discerned a similar pattern on which the DMin course is developed as we conduct research for our dissertations.
- Create a tentative bibliography;
- Inspect all the books of the bibliography to determine which are germane to the subject and to gain a clearer idea of the subject;
- Inspect all the books to select relevant passages;
- Bring the authors to terms that you create;
- Frame a set of questions your list will respond to;
- Define the issues both for and against;
- Analyze the discussion.
There it is, in a nutshell, the approach we will use to develop our dissertations. Our reading need not be laborious or burdensome, rather, it should lead us to better articulate our problem and highlight the path moving forward.
 Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. How to Read a Book. (New York: MJF, 1972), 49.
 Adler and Van Doren, 52.
 Adler and Van Doren, 329.
 Adler and Van Doren, 335-336.
8 responses to “Strategic reading, strategic giving”
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Mark, Great job relating this post to your dissertation. Reading syntopically is a skill that I need to practice and understand better. I am challenged to keep focused and follow those very tempting “rabbit trails.” We can all be swayed by the wind of interest that can and does lead us to areas we can waste tremendous time on. I appreciated the succinct outline to have at the end of the blog. That helps we visualize some of the next steps that I can use. I Thanks for re-framing this book in a way that has helped this reader.
1. PLEASE post a photo of your book. I have the kindle version with an updated cover, and I’m dying to see what your looks like.
2. I love the way you write.
3. Nice job weaving your topic into this post and then giving us a roadmap for how to navigate those gargantuan bibliographies we’ve only just begun to create. The link between philanthropy and syntopical reading is really interesting. Do you help donors with the triage process?
I can hardly wait for your book to arrive. Thanks so much for sending that!
What struck me the most about your comments was the highlight you made about the highest compliment of respect we give to an author when we mark up his book. The more I think about that, the more I agree!
That’s why I am going to mark up your book when I digest it (grin).
Travel well my Brother.
Great point Mark. Your connection between a Adlers process and our process we are embarking on is a great thought and helps we continue to visualize our own doctoral journey.
Amazing writing! I’m so impressed with your analogy between your research interest of philanthropy and how to read a book. One of my favorite examples you provided was the “30,000 ft perspective”. What a great way to think about an overview in reading – you could take that a step further to the idea of descent in an airplane (when you know your destination, you descend quickly and land). That’s exactly how I need to approach my reading in this program.
I hope you are settled back in to life in St. Stephens! What a joy to spend our time together in Cape Town! Please tell Karen hello!
I like your “30,000 foot” perspective. I really know what that means, because I fly airplanes up there in the heavenlies all the time. Did you know there are less demonic powers up there? My genuine Ghost Buster demonic meter-reader confirms my theory. I did see two angelic figures flying on my wings one night in combat, but that is another story.
For me, what Adler offers is a practical approach to reading, that guides and inspires over achievers like us to discard our ineffective reading techniques and adopt his.
I also liked Adler’s mix of secular biased techniques on how to read philosophy and theological works. Was it an accident, or divine intervention for Adler to claim “faith” as the solution and lens on how to read theology, and the “Word of God.” Excellent Post!
Great post, I know that reading syntopically is a skill I need to hone. In trying to grasp the task at hand for all of us, this is one of the most important tasks we can use. If we get caught up chasing down trails we don’t need then I don’t see how I could ever finish. Thanks for your post.
Hey Mark! Thanks for your thoughtful post and the intersections with leadership. This notion of taking the 30k-foot view makes a lot of sense to me as a leader, and reminds me of the Ronald Heifetz books I return to regularly for leadership wisdom. I like the idea of approaching certain books this way as well. Your book, however, I will be reading word for word, and engaging with pencil and highlighter. 🙂 Talk to you soon!