For bibliophiles, here's a review of a new book on the history of that indispensable and occasionally snarky component, the Index.
INDEX, A HISTORY OF THE
A Bookish Adventure From Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age
By Dennis Duncan
Over the last quarter-century, the book as physical organism has been increasingly anatomized, and there has been no better medium for displaying anatomists' findings than the book itself. As they illuminate long-overlooked corners of bibliography, volumes like Anthony Grafton's
The Footnote and H. J. Jackson's
Marginalia have charted the contrapuntal dance among writer, publisher, reader and material object.
Consider, for example, the 2019 anthology
Book Parts, edited by Dennis Duncan and Adam Smyth. Its table of contents includes, satisfyingly,
Tables of Contents, along with
Indexes — a chapter by Duncan himself. Now, Duncan, a lecturer in English at University College London, has expanded that chapter into the erudite, eminently readable and wittily titled
Index, A History of the. Fittingly, the book comes equipped with not one but two official indexes — one stellar, the other unabashedly less so — as well as a third and perhaps even a fourth. (More on Indexes: Duncan's multiplicity of, below.)
An index, Duncan explains, is simply a map: a set of signposts pointing to — indicating — where to find what in the text's vast terrain. This map has three constituent parts: rubrics (generally subjects or personal names); locaters (typically page numbers, at least before the e-reader era); and an internal ordering principle (usually alphabetical).
From its inception, the index has provided a window onto the history of the book, for it took the advent of a particular type of book — the codex, a sheaf of pages fastened along one edge — to make an index a practical possibility. The progenitor of the modern bound book, the codex gradually supplanted the scroll, a medium inimical to the indexer's art. (An index in which every entry runs along the lines of
Socrates, death of: Take down 11th scroll from set of 12, unroll 37 inches and run a clean finger — perchance an index finger — 21 lines down the right-hand edge will in short order outbulk the text itself.)
The document that today's readers would recognize as an index arose simultaneously in Oxford and Paris in the 13th century, a consequence of the voluminous reading practiced in two newly formed institutions: the universities and the mendicant orders of Franciscan and Dominican friars. With so much reading, Duncan says, came the corresponding need
for the contents of books to be divisible, discrete, extractable units of knowledge.
In the mid-15th century, the mass production born of Gutenberg's press began to make the index a regular feature of the bound book. But its very ubiquity — and very utility — would make it an intellectual flash point.
As the index becomes more prevalent, Duncan writes,
so too does the chance that readers will use it first. Rather than an aide-mémoire the index might be used as the way into a book.
That, by some scholars' lights, was a sacrilege. The 16th-century Swiss bibliographer Conrad Gessner, a meticulous indexer of his own work, admonished:
Because of the carelessness of some who rely only on the indexes … the quality of those books is in no way being impaired … because they have been misused by ignorant or dishonest men.
(Gessner's anxiety, Duncan points out, prefigures by half a millennium modern fears that the seduction of instant Google searches is polluting readers' faculties for immersive engagement.)
In the end, convenience trumped peril, and the index endured. By the Victorian era, compilers had realized that indexes could be far more than mere finding aids — in particular, as Duncan deliciously shows, they made splendid vehicles for settling scores.
The reviewer beat me to my own planned interjection - Google and other modern search engines are at heart simply gigantic automated indexs, immensely useful while devoid of human playfulness:
Bootless errand see fool's errand,
fool's errand see fruitless endeavor,
fruitless endeavor see hopeless quest,
hopeless quest see lost cause,
lost cause see merry dance, and merrily onward.
To read the complete article, see:
Look It Up? Only if You're Dishonest and Ignorant
Wayne Homren, Editor
The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization
promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at coinbooks.org.
To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor
at this address: email@example.com
To subscribe go to: https://my.binhost.com/lists/listinfo/esylum
Copyright © 1998 - 2021 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.
NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster