Luke Miller

microblog, digital commonplace book, autobiography with digressions

The Syntopicon and Chronological Snobbery

Every day, 2700 books are published in the United States alone.

That's more than most people will read in a lifetime. And it doesn't even include the thousands of blog posts, online essays, and scientific papers that are also being published on a daily basis.

Whatever else we can say about the modern age, we are not lacking for new information.

This explosion of new books is a one symptom of our obsession with the “next big thing”. Perhaps because of our success in the fields of technology, science, and medicine, we assume that new ideas are the key to progress in every area of life.

We tend to overestimate the value of these new ideas and underestimate the value of old ones. But when it comes to the most fundamental questions and problems, this is a serious error.

In his introduction to one of his favorite old books, C.S. Lewis describes the problem like this:

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."

This outside perspective is crucial for helping us avoid the dangers of what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery", the fallacy of thinking that something is better just because it's new or irrelevant just because it's old.

He continues:

"Lewis continues: “None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books... The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction."

For this reason and others, we need the wisdom of dead mentors. We need to hear the echo of ancient truths. We need to be reminded that we are not the first people in the history of the world to think deeply about ideas like truth, justice, beauty, and goodness.

Where do we get this outside perspective? Where do we turn to for the remedy to our blindness?

Lewis would tell us to read old books. But, of course, that's only part of the answer.

The follow-up questions is an obvious one: Which books?

To answer this question, you don't really want to ask just one person, and you don't want randomly selected works. It's a unique challenge.

And it's a challenge that is uniquely answered by the Syntopicon.

What is the Syntopicon?

Put simply, the Syntopicon is a collection of topics. It is an index of ideas.

The Syntopicon was originally published as the two-volume index to The Great Books of the Western World, an Encyclopedia Britannica collection that included a chronological list of works that started with Homer and stretched all the way into the 20th century.

An American philosopher named Mortimer Adler provided the originally inspiration for the Syntopicon, and he was given the task of cataloguing and indexing the ideas. It was a massive undertaking that took more time and money than anyone expected. Before it was completed, the Syntopicon would take 10 years, 2 million dollars, and 400,000 hours from a team of over 100 readers.

It was originally published as the two-volume index to The Great Books of the Western World, an Encyclopedia Britannica collection that included a chronological list of works that started with Homer and stretched all the way into the 20th century.

The Syntopicon contains almost 3,000 topics organized under 102 ideas. Together, they trace the fundamental problems and questions that human beings have wrestled with for centuries.

Adler and his team believed the Syntopicon contained the fundamental ideas found in the Great Books. Ideas like Beauty, Education, Good and Evil, Justice, Love, Religion, Science, and Wisdom. These ideas address the questions that every one of us ask in the course of our lives.

The Syntopicon is not a concordance. It doesn't list every time these words are used in the Great Books and analyze them like a computer. Instead, it serves as a guide for tracing how people have discussed these ideas, sometimes using different language and often coming to very different conclusions.

For those involved in the project, the Syntopicon was created as an introduction to what has been called the "great conversation".
In the Syntopicon, each of these great ideas is given its own section that includes an outline of topics and a list of relevant works. But the centerpiece of each section is an essay written by Adler.

With his unique and impartial style, Adler uses these essays to introduce us to the key points of view on each of these great ideas.

Then, at the end of each essay, he provides an outline of topics, references, cross-references, and additional readings.

So essentially, the Syntopicon invites us to listen in on the great conversation and then join in ourselves.

The Fresh Breeze of the Centuries

The fresh breeze of the centuries blows through these great ideas. For those seeking a remedy for chronological snobbery, the great ideas are a great place to start.

In this context, think of an "idea" as a universal, transcendent concept.

In theology and philosophy, these ideas tap into what is called the logos. Plato called them forms.

These ideas are present across languages, cultures, and generations. They tap into the image of God in man, and they are the ideas that move armies, publish books, spark revolutions, and inspire art.

When you read about these ideas in the great conversation, you are getting perspective that you will not get in the silos of the information age. These ideas cannot be communicated in 7-minute media newsbytes.

So go and read. Breathe in the fresh air of ancient truths. But prepare yourself. This breeze sometimes has an edge. Be prepared. Your "dead mentors" will challenge assumptions that you didn't even know you had.

Further Reading

  1. Get Info on the Syntopicon Anti-Book Club (in progress).
  2. Read more about the Syntopicon Ideas

Shortcodes for Annotating Physical Books

I probably read 80% of my books on Marvin these days.

I actually prefer reading physical books, but my workflow for processing and paraphrasing book notes is greatly expedited when I can send the digital highlights directly to Evernote or Roam Research.

When I do read a physical book, I still highlight, underline, etc., but I try to keep my annotations simple and consistent.

A while ago, I took a screenshot of a list of shortcodes for annotating physical books, because I thought they were really interesting. I edited and expanded the list and came up with this:

1,2,3 = numbered lists that organize the author’s ideas
AN = Anecdote, an illustration or story
BIO = Biographical reference
BK = Book, a book is mentioned
COM = Commentary, explanatory or critical notes
CS! = Controversial Statement
DEF = Definition, definition provided or needs to be looked up
DES = Description
DLG = Dialogue
EX = Exercise, habit, ritual, liturgy
FCT = Important fact or data
FP = Foundational Principle (often in Theology/Philosophy works)
HIST = Historical Reference
INT = Interview
LA = Logical Argument
LF = Logical Fallacy
LST = List
LYR = Lyric
MET = Metaphor
NS = News Story
PL = Punchline or joke
QS = Question
QT = Quotation, a quote I might like to reference later
REF = Reference, external to the source
RS = Resource
RV = Review
SUM = Summary
TEMP = Template
TS = Thesis Statement
VI = Visual Illustration

For the next physical book I read, I'm going to us these shortcodes. I think they'll be really helpful.

I've also added them to my Roam Research workflow for processing eBooks and working with notes in Roam.

How to Use Roam Research for Knowledge Work

I use Roam Research for many things: daily journaling, project/task management, and CRM (just to name a few).

But my primary use for Roam is knowledge management.

After 3 months, 1,500+ pages, and 300+ permanent notes, I created a guide on how I use Roam as personal knowledge base and digital Zettelkasten.

Check Out the Guide Here

Berlinski on the Profound Limits of Science

"While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherent body of thought. The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain. There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience. There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos. All will be well. I do not know whether any of this is true. I am certain that the scientific community does not know that it is false."

David Berlinski, The Devil's Delusion

Niklas Luhmann and his Zettelkasten

Niklas Luhmann was a 20th century sociologist, who developed an innovative and revolutionary system for taking, filing, and combining notes from his research and writing. This is a short introduction to his Zettelkasten system.

After collecting notes for many years, he realized that these notes were not accessible or useful for his thinking and writing. They were buried in the margins of the original texts and lost on random slips of paper scattered around his office. So Luhmann created a knowledge management system that would solve this problem and provide the storehouse for his incredible output.

Most of the time, people attempt to create a reference system by building out a hierarchy of topics first and then adding notes to them as they read. Luhmann flipped that process around. Instead, he added all of his notes to one slip-box (German: Zettelkasten).

He would copy the note on an A-6 card and write a number in the corner. Then, he added new notes into the box using a complicated indexing system of numbers and letters.

Many people have focused on the analog features of his system, which are truly a testament to his ingenuity and commitment to research. But the real beauty of Luhmann's system is found in a few simple principles that can easily be applied today, even in digital knowledge management systems.

STEP 1: Create fleeting notes whenever you are reading.
STEP 2: Create bibliographic notes for sources. Include (in your own words) a brief summary of the big ideas in the book.
STEP 3: Create brief, literature notes as a transitional text. These notes should be in your own words and should contain specific references to the original text. Use direct quotes sparingly.
STEP 4: Create permanent notes for long-term use in writing and thinking. These notes must be atomic (include only one idea per note), carefully linked to relevant notes in your system
STEP 5: Create index notes to create entry points into the majority of your notes. These notes should pull together collections of related topics.
STEP 6: Create project notes that pull from your entire knowledge base. As your system grows, you will find more and more surprising connections and unique insights.

This is the system Luhmann use for decades, and it's the system that helped him become one of the most prolific writers of his era.

He said: “I only do what is easy. I only write when I immediately know how to do it. If I falter for a moment, I put the matter aside and do something else.”

In Germany, professors present a public lecture that announces what they believe will be the main research project of their career. During his lecture, Luhmann famously said, “My project: theory of society. Duration: 30 years. Costs: zero.” In sociology, a “theory of society” is incredibly ambitious. It's a theory that seeks to explain all of the major aspects of human life.

About 30 years later, Luhmann finished his project - a two-volume book titled "The Society of Society". Due to the density and complexity of his arguments, each chapter was actually published separately, and they stirred debate and discussion in every major academic department - philosophy, education, politics, law, economics, psychology, art, epistemology, and others.

Someone once asked Luhmann if there was anything he missed in his life. His said: “If I want something, it’s more time. The only thing that really is a nuisance is the lack of time.”

Just imagine what he could have accomplished with the time-saving tools available to us today.

Further Reading

  1. How One German Scholar was So Freakishly Productive
  2. The Zettelkasten Method
  3. How to Use Roam Research as a Digital Zettelkasten

Review: Roam Research

Roam Research Graph View


A few years ago, I started searching for a tool to help me create a personal knowledge base.

I tried using Evernote, TiddlyWiki, Joplin, Notion, DEVONthink, and others. Nothing worked. The process was just too time-intensive for all of them, and there was no intuitive way to resurface and reuse those notes.

I kept taking reading notes and saving them to Evernote, but I eventually gave up on the search for an app that I could use to create a personal knowledge base.

Then, a few months ago, someone suggested that I look into Roam Research.

It didn't seem to be anything special at first, but after a little research, I started a free trial, and I've been hooked every since.

Here is my top 10 list of Roam Research features.

Top 10 List of Roam Research Features

1. Built-in Atomicity

The bullet point structure may seem distracting at first (unless your familiar with apps like Dynalist). But they're actually the basic units of the entire system.

Each bullet point is viewed as a block in Roam, and it can be linked and connected to any other block in your database.

This kind of structure rewards brevity and clarity. The more atomized my notes are, the easier they are to connect to other ideas.

2. Easy Search Functions

From anywhere in the app, I can search across my entire database on a block level with the (()) command or on a page level with the [[]] command.

When you type the bracket symbol in Roam, it automatically closes the brackets for you on the other end. Same with parenthesis.

This is much faster than searching tag clouds, navigating through folders, or even using search functions in other apps.

3. Overlapping Hierarchies

Roam is built as a tool for networked thought. Remember, each bullet point as a node for each idea.

But it also supports hierarchical organization if you prefer to organize knowledge in that way.

I started with large structure notes of topics and sub-topics, but smaller structure notes have grown up organically over time. Roam handles both seamlessly.

4. Bi-Directional Linking

This is the new differentiator in knowledge management apps. In Roam, pages and tags are treated the same. And both create two-way connections between pages/blocks.

So when you link to another note in Roam, you haven't just added information to the current note. You've linked those notes in a way that will allow you to build out a network of ideas over time.

5. Automatic Indexing

In addition to indexing your pages/tags, Roam also tracks your "unlinked" references, which means that it shows other pages or blocks that use the same keywords, even when they aren't linked or tagged.

Just create pages for every key term or concept by wrapping that word or phrase in double brackets [[]]. Then, check the bottom of that new page to find all the linked and unlinked references.

Surprising connections are just waiting to be found.

6. Sidebar Editing

The sidebar (split-screen) is a key feature. Just shift+click to open a link in the sidebar.

This feature allows me to work with multiple drafts, synthesize ideas from multiple notes, and move knowledge around easily.

7. Custom Themes and CSS

Connected to the last point, I'll just mention here that you should definitely check out @azlenelza's "Zenith" custom theme. It's amazing!

It's one of the many themes available from members of the #roamcult.

I personally use the "Zenith" theme, because it lets me work with multiple notes side-by-side.

8. Fluid Structure

Notes aren't trapped in folders or buried in nested outlines. All my notes are free-floating, weighted only by how often they're connected to other notes.

Practically, this means I never have to worry about where to put a note. I just link it and let those relationships form organically.

9. Frictionless Writing

For me, this was the real game changer. In Roam, it takes seconds to create pages, add links, search the entire database, or view multiple notes at once. This means that I get to the real work of writing and thinking much faster.

In other apps, the process of created notes, adding tags, and organizing information was bulky and time-consuming. This is why I could never get Evernote to work for knowledge management.

In Roam, I accomplish all of these tasks in a fraction of the time.

10. Roam Community

If you're interested in trying out Roam Research, the good news is that you won't have to tackle the learning curve alone.

The #roamcult is super active on Twitter, and even though the app has only been out of BETA for a few months, there are already hundreds of tutorial videos, blog posts, resources, and websites to help you learn and explore.


These features (and others) make Roam Research a game changer for personal knowledge management.

It took a few weeks to nail down the workflow, but it's been worth it. I've been reading and writing more than I have in years.

If Roam sounds interesting to you, you can check it out here.

I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what Roam can do.

Further Reading

  1. Guide for Using Roam Research as a Personal Knowledge Base

Why More People should Try to Read 100 Books in a Year

A few weeks ago, I saw this on twitter:

I've seen this take (or something like it) more than once in the past few months, and it seems like a very odd mix of pragmatism and anti-intellecualism.

My initial response on Twitter was a bit scatter-shot, so I decided to take a few minutes to respond more carefully.

In short, I disagree with all three of the essential points of the post.

Reading lots of Books is NOT a Vanity Metric

A "vanity metric" is something you can measure that doesn't matter.

The implication here is that reading a lot of books doesn't matter on its own. It doesn't have any independent value.

This is simply not true. Assuming you are not failing in other responsibilities, reading more books is always more valuable. Of course, this does not mean that all books are equally valuable.

I'm thinking here of the famous quote from Francis Bacon:

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few are to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.”

But this is not an argument to read less books. It's an argument to read better books. And the more, the better.

So as a general rule, most people should read a lot more books. 100 books in a year would be an amazing goal.

And if at the end of year, you see that you reached that goal. You should be proud of that. That's a great accomplishment.

And if you mention it someone else, they really should give you some kudos.

If they don't, let me know. I'll give you the kudos. Plus, I need the encouragement to read more myself.

Efficiency is a NOT a Healthy Goal for Learning

The problem with this type of pragmatic reading is that it assumes you know what you need to know before you read and only benefit from it when you remember it. Neither is true.

Don’t read like you’re cramming for a test or gathering material for a research paper.

Instead, read like someone who will forget most of what you read. Because you will. No matter how many books you read or how carefully you take notes.

The most formative years of your life were the first 5. And you can’t remember most of it. You certainly couldn’t pass a test on it.

You‘ve been radically shaped by countless things that you‘ve forgotten.

So don’t stress about efficiency. Just read voraciously. Don't feel bad about reading what interests you, even if you're not sure it's the best book to read at that moment.

Read for pleasure. Read on a whim. Read fiction and non-fiction. Ready what you enjoy. Read what challenges your worldview.

Make a list of the 100 books you want to read. Don't let someone else make that list for you.

It's not going to be efficient. You're going to taste some books and devour others, and you're probably going to ditch a few of them altogether.

Just keep reading. Grab the next book off the list that captures your interest or imagination and read.

Output is NOT the Main Purpose for Reading

Some books should be processed slowly and used for output. I'm huge fan of taking notes, building a personal knowledge base, and using what you've learned to help others. I created a workflow specifically for this purpose.

But that’s not the only (or even most important) reason to read.

The modern obsession with output is really unhealthy for reading, because books become a means to an end, mined only for “useful” material.

It’s a breeding ground for confirmation bias, and it almost guarantees that your output will be shallow and half-baked.

Plus, if you read with the goal of wringing every good idea out of every chapter, you’ll have to slow down to an impossibly tedious pace.

And you're never going to read 100 books at that rate.

Bottom line. How you engage with a book is far more important than what you do with it.

Engaging with good content/characters is transformative. It makes you a better parent, friend, citizen, etc.

And it does this even when you don’t immediately have something “interesting” to show for it.

Further Reading

  1. The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction - Alan Jacobs

P.G. Wodehouse: Master of the Comic Metaphor

On this day in 1881, Pelham Grenville Wodehouse was born. As a child, he struggled to say his name (he later called it a "frightful label"). All he could manage was "Plum" (his version of Pelham), which was what his friends called him.

His fans and readers know him as P.G. Wodehouse. This is a short tribute and introduction to his work.

He once said, “I never want to see anyone, and I never want to go anywhere or do anything. I just want to write.”

It appears he got his wish. In 90 years, he wrote more than 90 books. He was a successful author, Hollywood screenwriter, and master of comic short story.

But he was also modest about his success: "Ask the first ten men you meet, 'Have you ever heard of P.G. Wodehouse?' and nine of them will answer 'No.' The tenth, being hard of hearing, will say, 'Down the passage, first door to the right.'"

A Wodehouse plot is a delightfully outrageous and often tangled adventure.

His characters are all caricatures, but even their eccentricities tell the truth about human nature. For example, you'll notice that they all have simple desires (usually involving relationships or avoiding trouble). This makes them immediately relatable.

He may not have won any Scripture Knowledge Awards as a child, but he was obviously very familiar with the Bible. As one author put it, he could "nail down a biblical allusion as quickly as Jael, the wife of Heber."

But the true genius of Wodehouse is his mastery of metaphor. A few examples will have to suffice here:

1) "He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom."

2) "Some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant - better left unstirred.”

3) "She came leaping towards me, like Lady Macbeth coming to get first-hand news from the guest-room."

4) "He looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow."

The metaphors are surprising, memorable, and consistently hilarious.

Aristotle believed that facility with metaphor was a mark of genius. If this is true (and I believe it is), we have a lot to learn from the comic genius of Wodehouse.

In the chapter on Wodehouse in his book, Writers to Read, Douglas Wilson makes the claim that one of the besetting sins of our age is our inability to make a point (even a good one) without sounding shrill.

Wodehouse can help us here. He can help us wield words with joy and wit, not anger and disdain.

Evelyn Waugh said of Wodehouse:

"[His] idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.”

The joys of reading Wodehouse are many. Comic misunderstandings, acrobatic wordplay, surprising metaphors, and hilarious dialogue. It's great fun.

I recall a coffee shop visit where I desperately tried (& failed) to hold back laughter and tears as I read "Uncle Fred Flits By". This is what awaits you in the stories of Wodehouse.

If you're new to his books, here are my suggestions for where to start:

  • For a full novel, try Code of the Woosters or Leave it to Psmith.
  • For short stories, you can't go wrong with Jeeves. My favorite is Carry On, Jeeves.
  • To learn more about his life, check out his "autobiography with digressions", Over Seventy

If you want to purchase books from the Wodehouse canon, I'd highly recommend the new Overlook Press editions (also known as the "Everyman Collection"). They've been re-releasing his works in a beautiful hardback collection.

I've been adding a book or two a year, but doing the math, it seems I should pick up the pace.