A Place for EverythingPosted: February 8, 2021
A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order
Narrated by Julia Winwood
Basic Books, October 20, 2020
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit
A Place for Everything is, as the subtitle makes clear, a study of the history of alphabetical order, and it is a fascinating one. The author reminds us early and often that alphabetical order is not necessarily the most logical way in which to arrange material. In the introduction she points out that in the eighteenth century colleges that we now refer to as Ivy League schools did not list their students in alphabetical order, but rather in descending order of the social status of their parents.
Flanders gives her chapters titles such as “A is for Antiquity” and “Y is for Y2K.” The material is largely in chronological order, though she does circle back at times. She tells us that the ancient Greeks accepted that their alphabet had a set order, though they did not necessarily arrange content that way. The author does demonstrate that the idea of alphabetizing material began very early on, but for many centuries it was used inconsistently.
We learn that in medieval times scholars had a variety of ways of organizing material. For example, a list of characters in the Bible might be in the order in which they first appear. An encyclopedia-like compendium of information might be arranged hierarchically: God, archangels, angels, humankind, animals, etc. Flanders tells us that as monasteries began to build up their libraries they might have a list of the books they owned, but it was not a catalog in the sense that the list didn’t tell one where to find the book on the shelves. She explains that in the early modern era a wealthy gentleman might catalog his library by noting a book could be found five volumes to the right of the bust of Cicero.
I was interested to read that in the eighteenth century playing cards were cheap and abundant, and that the backs were blank. They were, therefore, used like 3 x 5 cards were in the twentieth century. A major government cataloging effort in France used playing cards, but the project was never finished due to the French Revolution.
Flanders finishes the book by noting how, in the twentieth century, we simply assumed that alphabetical order was the correct way to arrange material. She then states the obvious, describing how, with Google and Wikipedia, alphabetical order is in some respects irrelevant.
Julia Winwood does a marvelous job of reading the audiobook, and it was a delight to listen to her pleasant English accent. If you enjoy the pleasures of language and literature you will like this book.