The radical power of the book index

Only through overcoming fierce resistance did indexes develop into the indispensable tools we know today

August 26, 2021
Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

Index, A History of the
Dennis Duncan (Allen Lane)

Is Google making us stupid? This was the question posed by the American writer Nicholas Carr in a 2008 essay published in the Atlantic. “I’m not thinking the way I used to think,” he confessed. “Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy… now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.” The internet, Carr posited, was to blame. “My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it.”

This argument has become something of a cliché, and Carr was self-aware enough to point out that this was hardly a new concern. Marshall McLuhan had said much the same thing about technology in the 1960s. Nietzsche’s prose, according to a friend of his, became “tighter, more telegraphic” after he began using a typewriter. A minor Venetian humanist lamented that the arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century would make people lazy, weak-minded and “less studious.”

Misoneism is the ur-fear. It’s understandable when it emerges as a response to paradigm-shifting inventions like the typewriter, the printing press or writing itself. A passage in Plato’s Phaedrus relays Socrates’ myth about the Egyptian god Theuth, who invented the act of writing. Theuth proudly presents his new creation to King Thamus, attesting that it “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories.” Thamus is unimpressed: “this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory.”

It is difficult to imagine that what most of us see as a functional piece of scholarly apparatus, the book index, could inspire the same passions as these monumental innovations did. But as Dennis Duncan shows in his masterful new book, Index, A History of the, the birth of the index was a long and painful one. 

Early indexes, concordances and distinctiones had been around for a long time before the index blossomed into something like its modern form. It was the arrival of printed page numbers that helped firm things up. At the Bodleian Library, Duncan gets his hands on the first extant example of the printed page number, in a short sermon produced in Cologne in 1470, and describes it as “the most intense experience that I have had of the archival sublime.” But 1470 was far from a watershed moment. Even at the end of the century, page numbers only appeared in around 10 per cent of printed books, and the index itself continued to be treated with suspicion. The Renaissance polymath Conrad Gessner balked at those “ignorant or dishonest men” who “rely only on the indexes” to gain information. A couple of centuries later Alexander Pope put it more floridly in The Dunciad: “Index-learning turns no student pale/Yet holds the eel of science by the tail.” The index, in these conceptions, is a shortcut, a cheat code that lets you digest a book without reading it in full. We are back to Socrates.

We do not think of indexes in this way nowadays. We have other concerns about technology, such as platforms like Blinkist that claim to distil the key ideas from an array of new books into bitesize podcasts. Notwithstanding Gessner, Pope and the rest, reading indexes from A to Z has not become common practice, and certainly isn’t considered a substitute for reading the book itself. But some indexes, as Duncan shows through a host of entertaining examples, can be enlightening, satirical and pointed in and of themselves. 

“It is precisely because indexing is a rarefied sport that it is worth saving”

It is these indexes—the ones that push the boundaries of the form and play with our expectations—that comprise the most entertaining parts of Index, A History of the. In one of those typically ego-driven episodes of academic score-settling associated with the Augustans, the Hellenist Richard Bentley in 1697 published a fine-toothed critique of Charles Boyle’s new edition of the epistles of the ancient tyrant Phalaris. In response, a gaggle of Boyle’s affiliates ganged up on Bentley, writing a hot-headed reply in which they accused him of “Index-hunting” in the manner of a “Second-hand Critic.” A young wit named William King added to this “A Short Account of Dr Bentley by Way of Index,” which includes multiple-page entries for, inter alia, “His egregious dulness,” “His Pedantry,” “His Appeal to Foreigners” and, perhaps most damning of all, “His familiar acquaintance with Books that he never saw.” This is bibliography as weapon, the expectation of dull objectivity associated with the index ingeniously subverted. The index-hunter has become the index-hunted.

There is in this anecdote a very particular, pleasing blend of nitpicking and linguistic flair that feels like a precursor to the cool passive aggression we so often see in the letters pages of learned magazines like the London Review of Books. Throughout the book, Duncan is aware that the index is a specialist area of interest. But by dissecting its history and its workings, he also shows that the vast majority of people who use indexes—anyone, really, who has ever read a work of non-fiction—take them for granted. His book is both an entertaining and edifying journey through index-history and a spirited defence of the index (and indexers) in the technological age. It is precisely because indexing is a rarefied sport that it is worth saving.

Not that it really needs saving. Yes, there’s the issue of money: indexing is not a lucrative practice, and the rise of automated software has provided a cheap alternative to human indexers. But as Duncan shows, software, at least by itself, is not much of an alternative. “A specialist indexer knows that it can be helpful to tag a concept even if it is not explicitly named… they can tell the difference—even without first names—between Marx, Karl, Marx, Groucho, and Marx, Richard.” Nowhere in this book is the importance of the human indexer more apparent than in its own index, compiled by Paula Clarke Bain, which is a nest of metatextual easter eggs. The entry for “wild goose chase” tells us to “see chase, wild goose” (not dissimilar from the teenage Lewis Carroll’s playful index to his own handwritten journal, which had entries for “General, Things in, 25,” “In General, Things, 25” and “Things in General, 25”). Under “Indexers” we have the subheading “veneration of,” with an editorial interjection: “[and quite right too].” And if we hadn’t quite got the message, her entry for “bad indexes” tells us to “see also automated indexing.” Go to “automated indexing,” and the two subheadings read “attempts to index like a human 254” and “fails 304–7.”

In fact, Duncan is refreshingly open-minded about the use of technology in indexing, precisely because he knows that technology, at least in its current form, simply cannot match a human. In The New Breed (2021), the robotics expert Kate Darling argues that our fear of robots replacing us is misguided. We should think of robots in the same way we think of pets: they are merely there to enrich our lives, to supplement us. The same can be said of indexing software, which has brought things a long way since the days when Virginia Woolf, compiling indexes, could be seen, as she wrote in a letter to Vita Sackville-West, “with the floor all strewn with little squares of paper, like the learned pig.” Modern indexers work with multiple computer monitors in front of them: one with the text to be indexed, another with the software, and a third with a search engine.

“Perhaps,” writes Duncan, “we sense that the concept of learning itself is an adaptable one, evolving in response to the technology of its time; that what might once seem a diminution, the betrayal of an ideal, can come to be seen as essential.” This is surely the point. The trials it went through are not merely coincidental but vital for the index to exist as we now know it, and it is precisely because it has been defined by its detractors and pioneers that we understand, for instance, the joke of Duncan’s book title, with that awkward, immediately recognisable front-loaded syntax. What was once a radical beast has, like so many innovations over the centuries, shrugged off its dissenters and settled into its place among the curtain rail, the spanner, and all the other unremarkable tools we have at our disposal.