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Examples 1: Christopher Alexander’s use of multi-level content

Examples of multi-level content – Part 1

To me, Christopher Alexander, the architect and systems theorist, is one of the most interesting thinkers alive today. His writing about patterns and the properties and structure of life is completely innovative and always thought-provoking.

His ideas about different levels of scale were very helpful in developing the concept of multi-level content and I included him in the Acknowledgements for the paper.

I was therefore delighted to discover recently that his understanding of levels of scale extended to book writing and that some of his books have been structured to include multi-level content.

(Multi-level content can be defined as the provision of content over multiple levels of detail ranging from the big picture summary down to the most granular detail. For an extended discussion of multi-level content, see www.francismiller.com/organising-knowledge.)

The book that best shows his use of multi-level content is The Timeless Way of Building, published by Oxford University Press in 1979.

In it, he provides three different levels of detail.

1. At the lowest level, there is the normal level of detail of any book, starting at page 1 and continuing sequentially through to page 549.

2. At the top level of detail, there is a Detailed Table of Contents which, over seven pages, gives a short summary of the main ideas of the book, with each of the chapters summarised in a sentence or a paragraph. This allows readers to get an overview of the book’s argument in a few minutes.

Below is one of these content description pages.

3. Rather unusually, Alexander has also created a middle level of detail by italicising text passages at the beginning and end of each chapter, as well as throughout each chapter, to give a more extensive summary of a chapter’s ideas.

Alexander has constrained the length of these passages so readers can finish the summary text for each chapter in a couple of minutes.

Below is a page showing italicised summary text alongside the ordinary text.

 

He also provided a guide to readers at the beginning of the book that addresses two of the key benefits of multi-level content.

 

He writes:

“What lies in this book is perhaps more important as a whole than in its details. If you only have an hour to spend on it, it makes much more sense to read the whole book roughly in that hour, than to read only the first two chapters in detail.”

Readers often get bogged down in a book after the first chapter or two and then give up on it completely. I agree with Alexander that it makes much more sense for a reader to spend that time getting a general sense of the whole argument of a book rather than focusing on the detail of a small part of the book.

In addition, getting an overview of a book’s ideas may well increase readers’ levels of interest and enthusiasm so they become more motivated to finish the book. Alternatively the overview may give readers enough information so they feel that a more detailed read is not needed.

Alexander goes on to suggest that, once the reader has obtained the general overview, “then, if you want to go into detail, you will know where to go, but always in the context of the whole”.

This is another very important point. A problem with most non-fiction books which are designed just to be read sequentially page-by-page is that the reader can still be encountering points that add to the meaning of the whole right up to the end of the book.

This means that they can only get a sense of the whole once they have completed the book.

The benefit of Alexander’s approach (and of multi-level content in general) is that readers can get an understanding of the whole before they start their detailed read. The book summary and the chapter summaries provide a general schema of the book.

Having this framework means that, as they go through individual pages, readers can see how the detail relates to the book’s general schema.

 

What’s more, readers can always return to the schema to refresh their memories if they find they are getting overwhelmed by the detail or if they’ve taken a break from the book and can’t remember much of what they have already read.

Having multiple levels of detail available can reduce the cognitive energy required to decipher a book’s meaning and can enable readers to spend more time on:

  • understanding concepts
  • assessing the truth and usefulness of the argument being made and
  • reflecting on how the writer’s ideas integrate with or challenge their own existing ideas.

Alexander has a slightly different approach to multi-level content in his Pattern Language book (1979), which I may write about in a future blog post.

Problems with Alexander’s approach

I think there are two problems with Alexander’s approach.

Firstly, having the text of the chapter summaries dotted throughout each chapter means that reading the summaries involves a lot of leafing through the book, which can be reasonably hard work and doesn’t lend itself to quick recaps. This means that the process isn’t as efficient as it could be for the reader.

Secondly, my personal preference is to have diagrams to show how the parts of the book fit together on multiple levels to make up the whole – and Alexander doesn’t provide these.

Conclusion

However, these are minor quibbles.

It is incredibly refreshing to come across an author who not only understands that non-fiction books have different knowledge levels but who also has gone to a great deal of trouble to make things easier for his readers by explicitly differentiating these levels.

 

H/t: Ben Mosior and James Stuber who suggested The Timeless Way of Building in reply to Tiago Forte’s tweeted question asking for details of authors who provide chapter summaries/outlines etc to help readers navigate books.

 

Notes

1. To find out more about the concept of multi-level content, please visit this page – www.francismiller.com/organising-knowledge.

2. The following resources are recommended for anyone who would like to find out more about Christopher Alexander’s ideas.

A paper on New Concepts in Complexity Theory by Alexander – www.katarxis3.com/SCIENTIFIC%20INTRODUCTION.pdf.

An article on God and architecture by Alexander – www.firstthings.com/article/2016/02/making-the-garden.

Notes of Alexander’s book The Nature of Order by Jerome Domurat –www.slideshare.net/Jerome_Domurat/nature-of-order-notes-part-1-christopher-alexander.

An article on The Wholeness Generating Technology of Christopher Alexander by Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros – www.metropolismag.com/uncategorized/the-wholeness-generating-technology-of-christopher-alexander.

 

Date published: August 15, 2018.
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