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Humanist Archives: Feb. 25, 2022, 6:32 a.m. Humanist 35.553 - pubs: review of Index: A Bookish Adventure

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 553.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2022-02-24 07:23:17+00:00
        From: Ken Friedman <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.551: pubs: on indexing

Dear All,

A good review of this book appeared in the New York Times.

Ken Friedman

Look It Up? Only if You’re Dishonest and Ignorant

By Margalit Fox

        • Published Feb. 15, 2022
Updated Feb. 17, 2022


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 “Dust Jackets,” “Frontispieces” and “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 anindex 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

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.

Edward Augustus Freeman is best remembered today for two things: his ardent
views on Aryan racial supremacy and being the father-in-law of the English
archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, excavator of the Palace of Minos at Knossos.
According to his fellow historian John Horace Round, however — or, more
precisely, to an immense entry in the index of Round’s 1895 book “Feudal
England” — he should also be remembered thus:

“Freeman, Professor: … his ‘facts’ … his pedantry … misconstrues his Latin … his
confused views … his special weakness … his wild dream … distorts feudalism. …”
The entry concludes with a resounding slap of a subhead: “necessity of
criticizing his work.”

A small slap of my own: In a book as elegantly devoted to literacy as Duncan’s,
it would be pleasant if the grammatical infelicities that lightly pepper the
text (“no such character presented themselves,” “which anyone in their right
mind would want to avoid”) had been buffed away. This is — or should have been —
the lookout of the copy editor, a crucial cog in the machinery that mediates
between publisher and reader.

It might have made for a richer volume, too, if Duncan had included a treatment
of index-making as a fundamentally cognitive enterprise — an idea he flirts with
in discussions of indexing taxonomy but does not fully explore. The process of
indexing — entailing pattern recognition, hierarchical ordering decisions and a
keen feel for semantics — has much to tell us about what the linguist George
Lakoff has called “a central goal of cognitive science.” (This objection,
however, may be no more than a manifestation of “Criticism: reviewers’ pipe
dreams triggered by personal biases of.”)

As for the index — or indexes — to “Index,” the primary one, by Paula Clarke
Bain, is as rigorous as a nonfiction book’s should be, and as enchanting as the
index to a book about indexes had better be. Teeming with gleeful, self-
referential Easter eggs worthy of Borges or Lewis Carroll, it should be savored
in full as dessert — or, if you are willing to be branded ignorant or dishonest,
an aperitif. To wit:

“Circular cross-references see cross-references: circular,” “cross-references:
circular see circular cross-references,” ...“indexers: human superiority;
veneration of [and quite right too]” and the unimpeachably informative “X, no
entries beginning with.”

If you retain the slightest doubt about “indexers: human superiority,” then
please turn to the book’s illustrative secondary index — leaden, lumbering and
generated by a commercial software program. In an act of editorial mercy, Duncan
has reproduced it only partway through the A’s.

A third index lies hiding in plain sight between the lines of Bain’s: a de facto
index to her own index. As demonically delightful as the larger map to which it
serves as a guide, it lures readers through her text via a score of entries that
work like a mad Carrollian snark hunt:

“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.

There is, I think, a fourth index in play, and it, too, is covert. I confess
that I discovered it in a flash of irritation, as I began to note dozens of
examples of the kind of authorial harrumphing (“and so we come, at last,” “let
us pause to consider”) that quickly courts self-parody.

And yet ... Spun together, these declarations form an Ariadne’s thread through
the Knossian labyrinth — a steganographic index all its own. (Steganography see
writing: hidden.) As erected by Duncan, this set of thoughtful rhetorical
signposts ushers the reader smoothly, even soothingly, along a fascinating,
immensely pleasurable journey through previously uncharted terrain.

A Bookish Adventure
From Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age

By Dennis Duncan

Illustrated. 344 pp. W.W. Norton & Company. $30.

Margalit Fox, who began her career as an indexer, is a former senior writer for
The Times. Her latest book is “The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War
Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History.”

> On 2022Feb 24, at 07:59, Humanist <> wrote:
>              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 551.
>        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
>                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
>                Submit to:
>        Date: 2022-02-23 16:18:02+00:00
>        From: Henry Schaffer <>
>        Subject: Indexing - part of DH?
> Index, A History of the
> A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age
> by Dennis Duncan
> The publisher says, "A playful history of the humble index and its outsized
> effect on our reading lives."
> I heard about this book, tracked it down - and want to read it.
> --henry

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