Index, A History of the—A Bookish Adventure: Dennis Duncan

Published by Allan Lane, 2021, 340 pages.

“The humble back-of-book index is one of those inventions that are so successful, so integrated into our daily practices, that they can often become invisible.”

Dennis Duncan has taken the index from the back pages into the forefront in this informative and entertaining book. Who would have imagined that a history of the index could be so enjoyable?

Indexing is basically “a system adopted as a timesaver, telling us where to look for things”. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines index as “an alphabetical list of names, subjects, etc. with reference to the pages on which they are mentioned”.

But the alphabetical listing and page numbers—both of which are ubiquitous now—did not always exist. The first time that pages were numbered was in a sermon written in 1470 by Werner Rolevinck, a monk from the Cologne Charterhouse. As Duncan puts it, the use of numbered pages “will revolutionize the way that we use books. And in doing so it will become such a commonplace that will almost disappear from view, hiding in plain sight at the edge of every page”.

The same goes for alphabetical listings. When Robert Cawdrey published the first English dictionary in 1604, organizing information alphabetically was an innovation. It required a paragraph-long explanation on how to use the “Table Alphabeticall”, including the concept of the nested nature of the alphabetical listing: for example, culpable would come after capable because u comes after a.

When indexes became prevalent, some people were concerned that it would lead to a dumbing down because, instead of reading the entire book, lazy students would be tempted to skim through the index instead. Jonathan Swift griped that they “would get a thorough Insight into the Index, by which the whole Book is governed and turned, like Fishes by the Tail”. (Obviously the worry about dumbing down is nothing new!)

The digital age has changed the way we engage with books and documents. The widespread use of digitized documents means that page numbers are no longer as relevant as they used to be. Instead of turning to the index to look for something, people use search bars. Software programmes can now do the indexing, although not as well (more about that later). In fact, the search engines work by looking through their own indexes of web pages rather than actually searching the internet.

The index was also a tool for wit, for what Duncan calls “the discreet snark”. Take an entry on a disgraced politician: “Aitken, Jonathan: admires risk takers, 59; goes to jail, 60”; or one that takes down colleagues: “Peterhouse [College]: high-table, conversation not very agreeable, 46”. When William F. Buckley, Jr., gave Norman Mailer a copy of his book, The Unmaking of a Mayor, he wrote “Hi!” next to Mailer’s name in the index, knowing that that would be the first place Mailer would look at.

There is a lot to enjoy here and to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”. An index saved a man’s life in 1543; scholars in the late 17th and early 18th centuries used it to wage battles and to mock their peers; and the indexer could choose, if she or he so wished, to change the emphasis of the book by what they highlighted. Thomas Babbington Macauley—the 19th century Whig politician who wrote The History of England—was well aware of this. When he was on his deathbed, his instruction to his publisher was “Let no damned Tory index my History”.

A book about indexes should, naturally, have an index of its own. In this book, there are two: one that is computer-generated, and another compiled by a human, Paula Clarke Bain. And there is no comparison between the two. The computer-generated one, which runs on for three pages (and that’s just the A) is merely a list of terms.

The real index is a delight. It is the first one that I have actually read right through and chuckled over. Don’t get me wrong: this is a proper index, but it is also a nod to the earlier ones, when the indexer would throw in some wit. For example, the entry for Newman, Cardinal is followed by “Newman, Paul, unexpected appearance of”. And if you follow the references for “bootless errand”… I won’t say any more, but let you find out for yourself.

Duncan has written a book that is scholarly without ever being dull. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a lot (and laughed a lot too!). I would recommend this book—you will never look at an index the same way again.

Read Talking About Books’ interview with Dennis Duncan.

Buy from UK / USA

4 thoughts on “Index, A History of the—A Bookish Adventure: Dennis Duncan

  1. Pingback: The Best Books of 2021 – Talking About Books

  2. Pingback: Investigating indexes: An Interview with Dennis Duncan – Talking About Books

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