Index, A History of the

A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age

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Pub Date 15 Feb 2022 | Archive Date 31 Jan 2022

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Description

A playful history of the humble index and its outsized effect on our reading lives.

Most of us give little thought to the back of the book—it’s just where you go to look things up. But here is the secret world of the index: an unsung but extraordinary everyday tool, with an illustrious but little-known history.

Charting its curious path from the monasteries and universities of thirteenth-century Europe to Silicon Valley in the twenty-first, Dennis Duncan reveals how the index has saved heretics from the stake, kept politicians from high office, and made us all into the readers we are today. We follow it through German print shops and Enlightenment coffee houses, novelists’ living rooms and university laboratories, encountering emperors and popes, philosophers and prime ministers, poets, librarians, and—of course—indexers along the way. Duncan reveals the vast role of the index in our evolving literary and intellectual culture, and he shows that in the Age of Search we are all index-rakers at heart.

About the Author: Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English at University College London. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books, and he is the coeditor of Book Parts.

A playful history of the humble index and its outsized effect on our reading lives.

Most of us give little thought to the back of the book—it’s just where you go to look things up. But here is the...


Advance Praise

"Dennis Duncan has done a great service to all bibliophiles by writing this scholarly, witty, and affectionate history. By rights ‘Books, love of’ ought to have a page-long entry in the index." - Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves

"What a surprise to discover that the plain and humble index has such an intricate and rollicking history! Dennis Duncan gives us a learned grand tour from ancient times to the almost present in the design and uses—and cunning abuses—of what is still the most sophisticated search tool ever devised. Instruction, passim! Entertainment, idem!" - David Bellos, author of Is That a Fish In Your Ear?

"Entrancing…Every page has things I didn't know, or hardly realized I knew from a lifetime of looking things up. Master the use of the index and you have access to all knowledge." - Christopher de Hamel, author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts

"Dennis Duncan has done a great service to all bibliophiles by writing this scholarly, witty, and affectionate history. By rights ‘Books, love of’ ought to have a page-long entry in the index." -...


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ISBN 9781324002543
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Featured Reviews

To be completely fair, I am a library cataloger who toyed with the idea of becoming an indexer. I am absolutely the target audience for this. It was amazing. I love it. I want to give it to people as gifts. I loved this history and exploration about how we organize our thoughts when it comes to books. This is probably one of the most approachable explanations I've ever seen around the differences between an index and a concordance and why they are absolutely not interchangeable. This was a celebration of the dedication and humor that can be found when someone tries to capture the key points of someone else's argument. Informative and fun. An easy read about what in less deft hands could have been a slog. This is simply a delightful book that belongs on the shelf of any reader.

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First I love the title. Index, A History is perfect. Secondly I love books about what at fist appear to be mundane subjects but when explored show how powerful some of the most useful and rarely thought about advances have been in history. I am reading this at the same time as The Swerve and these two really compliment each other in pointing out how important language and thought is and how we can more easily access it through the use of the index. Really great book for language nerds.

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Any scholar or librarian will tell you, once you start to accumulate information, you’re going to need a way to find the bit you need in the inevitable mountain of clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment codexes, and all the other written and digital texts that followed. Human memory is good, but its been centuries since it was possible to read everything. So it’s no surprise to me and other nerds that indexes have been around since at least the beginning of the common era to help us find that one bit in that one book that we read that one time. In Index, A History of the, by Dennis Duncan takes us on a journey through jotted notes, to the first indexes, to mock indexes, to the massive digital databases that run operations like Google.

The first indexes, according to Duncan, did double duty as memory aids and tables of content. Duncan quotes a letter from Pliny the Elder to the emperor at the time, letting him know that he doesn’t have to bother reading Pliny’s encyclopedia; he can just browse the index instead. But it’s a long way from Pliny’s index to where we are now. Duncan takes trips through alphabetical order, how to accurately indicate locations when people keep making the books different sizes, and how detailed the index should be so that it’s not as big as the original book. So much about the index seems intuitive, because we’ve always had them, but some of the oldest extant indexes we have include instructions about how to read and use an index.

One recurring theme in Index is the surprising amount of vitriol people have expressed about how indexes make things too easy! Just like the recurring arguments about how writing is worse than memorization (Socrates in the Phaedrus) or how whatever that other person is doing isn’t real reading, there have been a surprising number of people who think that using the index is cheating. They fret that students will read the indexes instead of the book. Duncan quotes a lot of witty men sneering at “index-learners.” (It was a sick burn for the 1600s.) From my perspective in the twenty-first century, I would respond to these learned men that indexes are a necessary key to finding anything these days. The libraries we have now would blow their bewigged minds.

Over the weekend, I had to work very hard every time I talked to a family member or a friend to not read parts of this book to them. I was fascinated and highly entertained by every chapter of index-y goodness served up by Duncan. I realize that this book is for academic nerds, and not everyone is going to enjoy it the way I did. But you guys, this book is engrossing! And full of index jokes! Which are totally a thing!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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