Index, A History of the

Index, A History of the - coverIndex, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age
Dennis Duncan
W. W. Norton & Company (February 15, 2022), 351 pages
Kindle edition $9.66, Amazon hardcover $20.95

Like most people who read books, I am familiar with the index in its modern form. In my college days back in the 1970s, pre-personal computer and pre-online search, the index was indispensable. I would check books out of the library and use the index to find material that was relevant to the term paper I was writing. During my days as a technical writer I would insert markers into the publishing program I was using to generate an index when the user guide was complete. (After the manual was printed I would look at my index and ask myself, “Who was the knucklehead who created this index?”)

Duncan’s book is interesting in that he goes back to the precursors of the index. In the days before page numbers a scholar would use other markers to point the reader to the point in the manuscript that had the content they were looking for. Some early indexes were not alphabetical, particularly for religious texts. For example, the first entry might be “God” with a list of attributes of God pointing to the various textual entries, and then move down the list hierarchically rather than alphabetically.

The author describes one example where the manual copying of manuscripts did not fit well with the index. The copyist copied the manuscript on a smaller size paper than the original, so the pagination did not match, but copied the index verbatim, so the references didn’t point to the location where the material actually was. The invention of the printing press pretty much eliminated that problem.

Duncan writes about how an index might be used to fight an academic battle. Adversaries would create an index of an opponent’s work to highlight the errors and inaccuracies. They might even include snarky comments as part of the index entry. One professional indexer was opposed to the content of a book the author hired him to index and so created entries that suggested the opposite of what the book actually said.

Social critics did not hesitate to use the idea of the index to beat up on their targets. They would accuse socialites of skimming an index rather than reading the entire book so they could sound informed at parties. That made me think of Dick Cavett, who admitted going to the index and looking for his name when a new memoir or autobiography came out.

There is also a brief foray into the idea of indexes in fiction. Duncan writes that Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando included an index, but that was part of the spoof since Woolf presented the novel as a biography. A couple of other novelists tried this in the early twentieth century, but fortunately it never caught on. When reading this section I kept wondering if The Lord of the Rings needed an index. Probably not.

Duncan includes an appendix in which he shows an index of the current book generated by a computer program. His point here is that human indexers have nothing to fear.

If you are a book nerd add Index, a History of the to your reading list. You’ll enjoy it.


One Comment on “Index, A History of the”

  1. Peggy Joque Williams says:

    I was surprised how much I enjoyed Index, a History of the. Besides being some who enjoys learning about words and how we use words in various forms, it provided a look at history from a perspective I hadn’t thought about before. Enjoyed your review.


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