Investigating Indexes: An Interview with Dennis Duncan

Dennis Duncan is a British writer, translator and lecturer.

His book, Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure, was published in 2021. His other books include The Oulipo and Modern Thought and Theory of the Great Game: Writings from Le Grand Jeu. He also co-edited Book Parts, a collection of essays on the various elements of a book, such as dust jackets, title pages, running heads and tables of content.

Dennis is a lecturer in English at University College London. He has written for The Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) and the London Review of Books.

Talking About Books interviewed Dennis on his interest in indexes and the “invisible” parts of a book.

TAB: Your history of the index is a fascinating and entertaining read. I love the fact that you chose to highlight something that we all take for granted. What drew you to write a book about the index?

DD: It’s a slightly odd one, but I did my PhD about a group of avant-garde writers based in Paris in the second half of the twentieth century. They’re called the Oulipo. Italo Calvino was a member, along with other writers like Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec (who wrote the group’s most notorious work, the novel La Disparition which doesn’t use the letter e). Anyway, about seven or eight years ago it occurred to me that a few novels by this group had indexes. Perec’s La Vie mode d’emploi, a novel by Harry Mathews called The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, meanwhile Calvino’s Mr Palomar has a table of contents. So I thought I might write an academic article: what is it about this group’s approach to narrative that makes them do the thing that novelists aren’t supposed to do and include an index. So to do this I needed to know a bit more about the history of indexes. I started asking my colleagues if they knew of a book on the subject … and none of them did. I was surprised there was a gap there, and thought “Well, someone needs to write that book.” But it does strike me as funny that this bibliographic history book should have come directly out of thinking about playful avant-garde literature.

TAB: The index has had a chequered history. Sometimes it was more than just a means to help readers find their way around a book. Could you tell us about how some indexers subverted this tool?

DD: Absolutely! Once everybody knows what an index is and how it works—what it should look like—then it becomes possible to play around with it, because people will get the joke if you start to pull it in new directions. The absolute masters of this were the satirists of the early eighteenth century. Maybe the best example is the case of William Bromley, a British politician who was running for Speaker of the House of Commons in 1705. As a young man (this is about a decade earlier), Bromley had brought out a travel book—a kind of gap-year narrative of his time in France and Italy. It wasn’t very interesting or very successful. But… three days before the election for Speaker, suddently this book turned up again in a new edition. This second edition was identical to the first except that it had an index, and instead of being neutral, this index lists all the moments the young Bromley was naïve, or a bit too complimentary about the Pope, or when he gets things wrong, or just spends too long musing about the carp in Lake Garda! Basically, it was designed to make him look stupid, the butt of a big joke, just days before the election. Sure enough, Bromley lost, and he absolutely believed that it was the index that had cost him the vote.

You still get good index snark. There’s a fantastic book—an anthology of bad poetry—called The Stuffed Owl, published in the 1920s, and its index is an absolute gem, mocking all the worst lines of Wordsworth and Coleridge and so on.

Then there is Williams Obstetrics (16th edn), a 1102-page textbook edited by Jack Pritchard. Pritchard got his wife to compile the index, and, between chancroid and chemotherapy, she decided to insert a discreet criticism of her husband: “chauvinism, male, voluminous amounts, 1-1102”.

TAB: How do you think the digitization of books and documents has affected the subject index?

DD: That’s a really good question. The way that we read digitally, where there will always be a searchbar available, allowing us to jump to the word or phrase we want, is essentially a return of the concordance—the word index. It’s a purely textual way of thinking about searching. But it doesn’t help if you’re searching for an idea—a concept—rather than a word. (An example: the parable of the prodigal son is probably the most famous story about forgiveness in the Bible, but it doesn’t contain the word forgiveness, or mercy, or even prodigal—so a word index wouldn’t help you locate it.) A good indexer knows that, as well as an entry for Pollock, Jackson, it might be worth including an entry for abstract expressionism, and so on.

Now, the trouble is that the searchbar is built into the software we use to read—Word, Adobe, our web browsers and eReaders. Every time you download a new book—one book, a hundred, a thousand—it will already, automatically be searchable. Whereas a subject index has to be compiled individually, from scratch, for every book. So there is a cost there. And there is a danger that, if more and more of our reading happens digitally, the people who produce those books will thing that the searchbar is good enough, that the subject index is an unnecessary luxury. So I do want to bang the drum a bit for the value of a proper subject index. Good non-fiction needs a proper index. Otherwise readers will not be able to get the most from it.

TAB: One of the things that comes through in your book is that those who compile indexes are seldom acknowledged. You remedy this by naming your indexer, Paula Clarke Bain, who has written one of the most enjoyable indexes I have read! How, in your opinion, could we provide more visibility to indexers?

DD: Something that the indexing community appreciate, I think, is when reviewers call out books that are badly served by their index—either because there simply isn’t one, or because it isn’t very good. I know this sounds rather negative, but it is important to hold publishers to account, in print, when they bring out books that can’t be used properly.

On the positive side, National Indexing Day (the last Wednesday of March) has raised visibility a little in the UK for the last few years. Also, the Society of Indexers used to award an annual prize—the Wheatley Medal—for the best index. Past winners have included, for example, Robert Latham’s gloriously detailed and revealing index to Pepys’s diaries. I’d like to see that reinstated to draw attention to what a profound aid for readers an index can be, as well as what a work of art.

TAB: You often focus on things that tend to go unnoticed—for example, in Book Parts, and also in your TLS article about typefaces. What draws you to these elements of printed text?

DD: That’s a funny question—I hadn’t really thought of my work in those terms! I just find the process of bringing things into print fascinating. And I think we very often overlook what a collaborative process bringing a book is. Between the manuscript (or the Word document) that the author submits and the book that the reader buys in the shop, there is an editor, an illustrator, a designer, a proofreader, a copyeditor, not to mention the printers and papermakers and type designers… I mention this in the Acknowledgements to Index—it reminds me a bit of the Tour de France: there’ll be one person standing on the podium with a magnum of champagne, and yet it was his team who got him there. So I’m curious about that, and interested in shining a light on some of those—what Kevin Jackson called the ‘invisible forms’ of the book.

TAB: What inspired you to become a writer?

DD: It’s an odd phrase, ‘being a writer’. I’ve written academic books, which haven’t felt writerly exactly; whereas I’ve written reviews and bits of literary journalism that I feel quite proud of in that respect. Maybe—for me at least—the distinction is thinking about who will actually read it. With an academic book, you’re writing for a very small, expert readership, who will be reading your book because they really need to find out the stuff you’ve discovered. Whereas with the other type of writing, you’re writing for a much bigger audience—people who may be interested in what you have to say but are also there to be entertained. You have to make sure that they enjoy reading your writing, because they don’t need to read it; it’s not their job.

So, after that long preamble, I actually thought that Index was going to be an academic book. But then I published a little bit of it on the TLS website and immediately found myself being approached by three different publishers who were interested in it. So once I realized that it wasn’t the most impossibly niche, arcane subject—that people might actually be interested in it, I had to really rethink how I was going to present the material: thinking about voice, thinking about anecdote, the odd bit of humour, a few moments where I describe what archival research actually looks like, what medieval manuscripts feel like, how they smell, and so on.  

TAB: What advice would you give to a writer starting out?

DD: Two very obvious things. You can’t be a writer without being a reader, so read, read, read. What do you like? Why does it work? Could you imitate it? Secondly, you can’t be a writer without writing, so get writing. Blogs, reviews, pastiches—anything. It’s like a musician practising their scales, getting faster, more fluent. Then actually putting things out there—sending pieces off, putting them online—is really important: getting used to actually being exposed.

TAB: Learning about the origins of the things we take for granted makes you appreciate them. I, for one, will never look at indexes the same way again! Thank you for that journey.

Read my review of Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure.

5 thoughts on “Investigating Indexes: An Interview with Dennis Duncan

  1. Pingback: Index, A History of the—A Bookish Adventure: Dennis Duncan – Talking About Books

  2. Sophie

    This was so fascinating to read Suroor! The Oulipo group is indeed quite known in France and very much appreciated in academic circles. Funny to think they were D. Duncan inspiration.
    A great interview and great answers (especially the part on digitization)!

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