Index, A History of: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age by Dennis Duncan 2021
This book called out to me from the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review issue of February 9, 2022, and having finally read it, I can only say that it’s sui generis. If you’re a book nerd, interested in things like manicules, pilcrows, the Stendahl effect, and signatures (not the ones with which you sign documents), this book is for you.
What makes Duncan’s exhaustively detailed history of the index, that mostly ignored and usually forgotten final portion of most non-fiction books, is his brilliant wit, deep scholarly investigation, and wonderful characterizations of both the obscure, e.g. Robert Grosseteste and Hugh of St. Cher from the 13th C, and the famous, e.g. Larry Page’s Google and Alphabet. My favorite character in the book is one William Poole. Born in Salem, MA and a graduate of Yale, he had been head of public libraries from Newton to Chicago to Cincinnati as well as the overseer of private libraries from the Boston Atheneum to the Naval Academy. Poole had written an alphabetical index of articles in periodicals while a student at Yale, and his index would become the model for a multinational effort to index periodicals world-wide, an effort that ran to multiple editions, the final one being published in 1907, a precursor of today’s Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature first published in 1901. Poole’s Index contained this epigraph on its title page: “He who knows where knowledge may be had is close to having it.” Seems like a fitting motto for Google Search over 100 years later.
Duncan traces the history of information and how to find it from the Library of Alexandria in Egypt where scrolls were tagged with a papyrus label to the modern codex with its pagination and alphabetical listings. Obscure controversies that would never have occurred to me are brought to light—does one base an index on subject or on words, i.e. a concordance. The concern that an index would lead to ‘lazy reading’ by those who would skip the book and just read the index led to a slow start for this technique but one that today has led to ‘word searching’ and literary criticism based on automatic index-generating software. But even in our digital age, the indexer, a human being doing close reading of the text, is still necessary if a reader is to going to be able to find a specific reference buried in a 1000 page tome.
This is not a book that will appeal to every reader, but it is a fascinating and delightful book for those who find books to be wonderful objects, filled with information, beauty, wisdom, and in the case of Duncan, enough humor to bring a much needed smile to one’s lips.