The Index: A humble but mighty tool to bring order to chaos

“Index, A History of the” by Dennis Duncan, offers a surprisingly entertaining account of an overlooked, even underrated, organizational tool. 

"Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age," by Dennis Duncan, Norton, 351 pp.

Dennis Duncan’s breathless description of his encounter with a 15th-century volume in an Oxford library offers an indication of his enthusiasm for the subject of his new book. He writes of his “disbelief that something so significant, something of such conceptual magnitude, should be here on my desk. … It feels astonishing that I should be allowed to pick it up, hold it, turn its pages. … I feel like I am on the verge of tears.” 

The source of this excitement? Duncan has in his hands the text of a sermon, printed in 1470, on whose opening page appears the numeral 1. In another context the digit would be unremarkable, but this particular book boasts the first printed page number in history. And page numbers, together with a much earlier innovation, alphabetical order, form the basis of the index, the topic of Duncan’s entertaining and erudite “Index, a History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age.”

Duncan, a lecturer in English at University College London, begins with alphabetical order, which came into use 2,000 years ago and which he dubs a “prehistory” to the index. Again, he urges readers to consider with fresh eyes something taken for granted. “To take the sequence of the letters with which we spell our words, and to use that sequencing for something entirely different – books in a library; pictures in an exhibition; plumbers in your area – requires an imaginative leap that is nothing short of extraordinary,” he marvels.

Reinforcing the point, he reports that alphabetical order was uncommon in the medieval period, when scholars found it an irrational method of categorization. Still, it eventually gained popularity. The benefit of alphabetizing, of course, is that it is universally understood and can be used to classify most anything.

The first early efforts at indexing appeared in 1230. English philosopher and theologian Robert Grosseteste’s “Tabula” was a sweeping subject index categorizing the major concepts in his expansive readings in both Christian and non-religious traditions. At the same time, over in Paris, Dominican friar Hugh of Saint-Cher was creating the first concordance to the Bible, meaning that he took every word of the Bible and for each word listed every instance where it occurred. (Since the page number hadn’t yet been born, readers were directed to the book, chapter, and section of each occurrence.)

The distinction between the more interpretive subject index and the more objective word index remains important throughout Duncan’s book. There’s more fun to be had with the subject index, naturally, and his wide-ranging narrative seeks it out, covering the fictional index in Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel “Pale Fire” and the whimsical index in Lewis Carroll’s final novel, 1889’s “Sylvie and Bruno.” One chapter of the book is devoted to failed 18th-century efforts to popularize the indexing of fiction more generally.     

The most antic chapter covers “the rogue index,” an index that’s “weaponized against its primary text.” Here Duncan summarizes several literary skirmishes that took place in the late 1600s and early 1700s in which a writer created an index to a rival’s work in order to satirize or ridicule it. One entry, from an index born of a feud between British academics, reads, “His egregious dulness, p. 74, 106, 119, 135, 136, 137, 241.” Centuries before Twitter, snarky indexes conveyed their makers’ scorn.

Duncan’s history reaches the present day, and he notes that some of the same fears about waning attention spans in the Internet age accompanied the birth of the index. Some worried that people would simply consult indexes rather than read books all the way through. “Anxieties about information technology,” he observes, “are as old as writing itself.” 

The author argues that even with search engines at our fingertips, we need good indexes now more than ever. Creating an index is a human task, “a job of deep reading, of working to understand a text in order to make the most judicious selection of its key elements” to be of service to a community of readers. Artificial intelligence can help, but it can’t replace the real-life indexers, overwhelmingly women, who do the work. 

Bringing the point to life, in an inspired move, Duncan includes two indexes to “Index, A History of”: one computer-generated and one by Paula Clarke Bain, a “professional indexer and a human being.” The computer-generated index is boring and occasionally nonsensical. Bain’s, on the other hand, is helpful and includes some of her own witty surprises. In an unexpectedly high-spirited book on indexes, the fun continues to the very last page.

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