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Duncan, Dennis: In new book, author dives deep into history of the index

Host Scott Tong speaks with Dennis Duncan, author of “Index, a History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age.” The new book explores the development of those things in the back of a book that many of us turn to for reference.

Book excerpt: ‘Index, a History of the’

By Dennis Duncan


‘I for my part venerate the inventor of Indexes . . . that unknown labourer in literature who first laid open the nerves and arteries of a book.’

Isaac D’Israeli, Literary Miscellanies

It is hard to imagine working with ­books – writing an essay, a lecture, a report, a ­sermon – without the ability to find what you’re looking for, quickly and easily: without, that is, the convenience of a good index. This convenience, of course, is not confined to people who write for a living. It spills over into other disciplines, into everyday life, and some of the earliest indexes appear in legal statutes, medical texts, recipe books. The humble ­back-­of-­book index is one of those inventions that are so successful, so integrated into our daily practices, that they can often become invisible. But, like any piece of technology, the index has its history, one that, for nearly 800 years, was intimately entwined with a particular form of the ­book – the codex: the sheaf of pages, folded and bound together at the spine. Now, however, it has entered the digital era as the key technology underpinning our online reading. The very first webpage, after all, was a subject index.1 As for the search engine, the port of embarkation for so much of our internet navigation, Google engineer Matt Cutts explains that ‘The first thing to understand is that when you do a Google search, you aren’t actually searching the web. You’re searching Google’s index of the web.’2 Today, the index organizes our lives, and this book will chart its curious path from the monasteries and universities of Europe in the thirteenth century to the ­glass-­and-­steel HQs of Silicon Valley in the ­twenty-­first.

A history of the index is really a story about time and knowledge and the relationship between the two. It’s the story of our accelerating need to access information at speed, and of a parallel need for the contents of books to be divisible, discrete, extractable units of knowledge. This is information science, and the index is a fundamental element of that discipline’s architecture. But the evolution of the index also offers us a history of reading in microcosm. It is bound up with the rise of the universities and the arrival of printing, with Enlightenment philology and punchcard computing, the emergence of the page number and of the hashtag. It is more than simply a data structure. Even today, faced with the incursions of Artificial Intelligence, the book index remains primarily the work of ­flesh-­and-­blood indexers, professionals whose job is to mediate between author and audience. The product of human labour, indexes have produced human consequences, saving heretics from the stake and keeping politicians from high office. They have also, naturally, attracted people with a special interest in books, and our roster of literary indexers will include Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Alexander Pope and Vladimir Nabokov. The compiling of indexes has not, historically, been either the most glamorous or the most lucrative of professions. We might think of Thomas Macaulay’s lament that Samuel Johnson, the most eminent writer of his age, nevertheless spent his days surrounded by ‘starving pamphleteers and indexmakers’.3 Had he but known it, Johnson might at least have consoled himself with the thought that in this company of indexers he would be surrounded by the most eminent writers of other ages too, and that, though undersung, the technology they were tinkering with would be central to the reading experience at the dawn of the next millennium.

Excerpted from Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. Copyright (c) 2022 by Dennis Duncan. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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Author Dennis Duncan. 
(C Stuart Simpson/Penguin Random House)
Author Dennis Duncan. (C Stuart Simpson/Penguin Random House)