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Index, A History of the

Dennis Duncan

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To purchase Index, A History of the

Title: Index, A History of the
Author: Dennis Duncan
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 344 pages
Availability: Index, A History of the - US
Index, A History of the - UK
Index, A History of the - Canada
Index, eine Geschichte des - Deutschland
Indice, storia dell' - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • UK subtitle: A Bookish Adventure
  • US subtitle: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age
  • With an Index by Paula Clarke Bain

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fascinating historical overview -- and surprisingly fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Scholar A Spring/2022 Charles Trueheart
The Economist . 2/9/2021 .
Financial Times . 27/8/2021 Houman Barekat
The Guardian . 7/9/2021 Peter Conrad
Literary Review . 9/2021 Adam Douglas
London Rev. of Books . 23/9/2021 Anthony Grafton
New Scientist . 15/9/2021 Simon Ings
The NY Times . 10/2/2022 Jennifer Szalai
TLS . 10/9/2021 James Waddell
Wall St. Journal . 11/2/2022 Ben Yagoda
The Washington Post A 18/2/2022 Steven Moore

  Review Consensus:

  Thoroughly enjoyable, if/and 'bookish'

  From the Reviews:
  • "Index, A History of the is a book of revelations. (...) Index, A History of the is a hymn to the creative spirit at work in any index generated by humans, and will give a frisson to those booky types who toil at the craft." - Charles Trueheart, The American Scholar

  • "As Dennis Duncan’s charming book shows, though today they suggest fusty libraries, indexes were once a novelty. A book seems such a simple structure that it feels less invented than self-evident, the innovations behind it hard to see." - The Economist

  • "(A) fascinating history" - Houman Barekat, Financial Times

  • "It is certainly bookish -- Duncan sedately enthuses about “the library tradition of communal coffee”, especially if it happens “over a biscuit”. But he is adventurous as well, often writing as if academic research were as revved-up as a Formula One race." - Peter Conrad, The Guardian

  • "As Dennis Duncan shows in his puckish eulogy to this often overlooked appendage, the index has a long history, longer even than printing itself." - Adam Douglas, Literary Review

  • "This suggestive chapter is necessarily incomplete: somewhere, near the Giant Rat of Sumatra, the ghost of Panizzi wails for recognition. But it also reveals one point on which Duncan’s lucid, lively account could be more informative -- commonplacing." - Anthony Grafton, London Review of Books

  • "Index, A History of the is his story of textual search, told through portrayals of some of the most sophisticated minds of their era, from monks and scholars shivering among the cloisters of 13th-century Europe to server-farm administrators sweltering behind the glass walls of Silicon Valley. It is about the unspoken and always collegiate rivalry between two kinds of search: the subject index -- which is a humanistic exercise, largely un-automatable, that requires close reading, independent knowledge, imagination and even wit -- and the concordance, an eminently automatable listing of words in a text and their locations." - Simon Ings, New Scientist

  • "This book is, on one level, a history of information science, but it’s also a history of reading and writing and everything those actions entail -- communication, learning and imagination, as well as competition, anxiety and no small amount of mischief. (...) That Duncan brings these old, intricate disputes to life is a testament to his gifts as a writer -- imaginative but also disciplined, elucidating dense, scholarly concepts with a light touch. (...) Duncan has written such a generous book, attentive to the varieties of the reading experience, that it’s only fitting he gave Bain’s index some space to flourish, a chance to come into its own." - Jennifer Szalai, The New York Times

  • "Duncan proves an amiable companion on what his subtitle aptly refers to as a “bookish adventure”. (...) He does well to squeeze meaning out of his source materials, alert to subtle shifts of tone in these apparently functional bits of text. Whistle-stop introductions to the printing press and the construction of early books make this work useful as an introduction to book history in general as well as indexes in particular." - James Waddell, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(I)t is an engaging tale of the long search for the quickest way to find what you need in those big, information-rich things called books. It is indeed an adventure, and “bookish” in the most appealing sense. (...) Duncan is an ideal tour guide: witty, engaging, knowledgeable and a fount of diverting anecdotes. The book skews toward the literary, but anyone interested in the 2,200-year journey to quickly find what one needs in a book will be enlightened, and will never again take an index for granted." - Steven Moore, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Index, A History of the Dennis Duncan presents a history and overview of that invaluable part of so many books, the index. As easy-to-use, quick guides and pointers to the content of a book, indexes -- Duncan's preferred plural ("Indices are for mathematicians and economists; indexes are what you find at the back of a book"; I'll grudgingly follow his lead here) -- have certainly made using books, for research and reference, much easier. As Duncan shows, there's more to indexes than just that, too, -- and he also makes the case that even in this age of digitized texts, where the Ctrl+F search function, and 'Googling', make finding any passage or word even easier, there is still a place and reason for the good old traditional index.
       Duncan is very good on the historical development of the index. He notes the development of two kinds of indexes: the simple word-index -- the concordance, "unfailingly faithful to the text it serves" -- and the subject index. His primary interest is the subject index -- the kind of indexes English-speaking readers generally come across in the works they read and consult. (Concordances also have their use, but are rarely found as concise, back-of-the-book indexes; indeed, they are often published separately from the book(s) they index (most notably, the Bible).)
       As Duncan notes (in considering computer-generated indexes, which are good at simply picking up and out words, but poor in shaping this information into the kinds of subject indexes readers want):

(W)e expect our back-of-book indexes to be more than mere word lists. We expect them to provide context, interpretation, to recognize when the same concept appears in different guises.
       As simple and obvious as the index can seem to us nowadays, it took a while to develop. While we take much for granted now, Duncan points out that other innovations were also essential -- and so he also appropriately titles one of his chapters: 'Where Would We Be Without It ? The Miracle of the Page Number, writing then also in proper awe of this wonderful marker. Its incredible usefulness is self-evident -- and so also: "Though indexes had been around for centuries, the printed page number would turbocharge their pervasiveness".
       Once books had page numbers, the usefulness of indexes was obvious -- and it's fascinating to learn that:
The printed index was only just coming into its own, and already alarums were being sounded that indexes were taking the place of books, that people didn't read properly any more, that there was something seedy, shameful -- something Mailerish -- about starting at the back.
       ('Mailerish' refers to Norman Mailer, and the anecdote about William F Buckley, Jr giving him a copy of Buckley's book, The Unmaking of the Mayor, with 'Hi !' hand-written next to the entry "Mailer, Norman" in the index, in anticipation of Mailer turning there first .....)
       Duncan also entertainingly discusses such things as the 'mock index', with indexers disparaging or making fun of the contents of the book in the formulation of indexes to other authors' books, a clever way of responding to or attacking others' writing. (Indeed, it's somewhat disappointing that this is hardly practiced any longer; contemporary indexes are (or try to be) serious affairs, and copyright-holders are understandably unlikely to allow others to have indexing-fun at their expense.)
       Usefully, Duncan also explores the (regrettably) far less common practice of indexing fiction, and indexes as parts of works of fiction. As he notes, there have been some creative works that play with the index-form -- most notably, The Index [pdf] by J.G.Ballard (1977), which he discusses at some length -- but the purely fictional form (for an index) has obvious limitations.
       The modern digital search function arguably largely obviates the need for traditional kinds of indexes to works of fiction, but I have to say that I am crushed to learn that Samuel Richardson created an index to his Clarissa and that my edition of the novel does not include it. (Duncan calls it: "a very curious thing indeed" -- and notes that it runs to eighty-five pages, with entries arranged under a series of categories (rather than just one long alphabetical list). There is, unsurprisingly, also a (longer) book-length index to Clarissa (by Susan Price Karpuk; AMS Press 2001, e.g.), but it's Richardson's own version that sounds more fascinating.)
       A final chapter considers 'The Book Index in the Age of Search'. Duncan helpfully explains how digital search functions -- and considers its advantages and drawbacks both for the individual user looking for something in a book as well as in the creation indexes. As he points out, it is difficult to generate a useful subject index relying solely or even mainly by indexing software; to make his point even clearer -- indeed, to rub it in --, Index, A History of the comes with two indexes of its own: one that is computer-generated (which he mercifully only provides a three-page sample of), and one created by a professional indexer, Paula Clarke Bain.
       Generally, in listing the number of pages a book under review has at this site I count only the text-proper, and don't count the pages which contain endnotes, acknowledgements -- or indexes (which is why the page-total noted is often considerably less than that claimed by the publisher or listed at Amazon). So, under normal circumstances, I would have noted that this book has 270 pages. In this case, however, the indexes are very much part of the book, so I list it at its full 344 pages -- and strongly encourage readers to read through all the way to the end, as Paula Clarke Bain's index, in particular, is very much part of the book -- practically in conversation with the text proper, illustrating (often wittily) many of Duncan's points.
       There's a big bonus point already for one good catch in it, as Bain's index gets the name right in pointing to 'Poe, Edgar Allan', despite it being misspelled in the text proper (yes, sigh, it's 'Allen', there) -- though of course there is an argument to be made for an index being faithful to the text, errors included .....
       But it's the many small details in this artfully created index that really shine, from entries for those seeking "pursuit, meaningless" (who certainly get what they're looking for) to the nice entry for the book itself:
Index, A History of the (Duncan) i-340
       a bad concordance to 304-7
       a good index to 309-40
       (Yes, this cleverness is marred, at least in the US edition, by committing the cardinal sin of indexing -- getting the (page) numbers wrong. While accurate to the conclusion of the text proper, the index is off for ... the indexes, the computer-generated one actually found at pp. 307-11, and Bain's at 313-344; the book as a whole clocks in at 344, not 340 pages ..... My sympathies to Duncan and Bain, who must have been absolutely crushed by this error. (I haven't seen the UK edition, and can just hope that it's just an American slip-up.))
       Elsewhere, the index offers everything from the absurd-amusing (see: "tell") to the many entries that so nicely reflect the text itself, such as: "plural of index don't see indices; see indexes" or a William Buckley-imitating shout-out to the Society of Indexers'. There is a good deal of fun to be found here, and it's a perfect complement to -- and, indeed, part of -- Duncan's book.
       Index, A History of the is very good on history, and also in considering the index in our age of search (engines) and digitization, but not quite as comprehensive as one might wish. Most notably, it is very English-centric -- as is perhaps to be expected from a lecturer in English ? -- and does not closely consider the modern index in other languages. So, for example, in German -- the only language where I have some familiarity with indexes -- it is not uncommon for works, especially of the more academic sort, to have both a Personen- and a Sachregister -- separate indexes for the people mentioned and the subjects. (These -- especially the Personenregister -- tend also to be more like concordances than the indexes Duncan favors.) A work I am currently reading includes not only an Institutionenregister (!) -- an index of the institutions and organizations mentioned in the book -- but a Register der Werke Dritter -- an 'index of the works of third parties' mentioned in the text (which clocks in at a whopping thirty-eight double-columned pages). (Both of these, again, are more concordance-like, yet despite the digital availability of this 2022 title, in working with this text I have found they do serve a useful purpose, providing helpful alphabetical overviews of the many works (and institutions) that find mention in the text.)
       It would certainly be interesting to know if indexing has developed differently in other traditions, especially in other languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, or Japanese, for example, and Index, A History of the does fall short in this regard. Otherwise, however, it is a most enjoyable read about a fascinating and perhaps underappreciated subject. As a longtime appreciator -- indeed venerator -- of indexes, I need no convincing, but for readers who perhaps haven't concerned themselves too much with them it is certainly also an eye-opener -- and a lot of good fun

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 July 2022

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Index, A History of the: Reviews: Indexing: Dennis Duncan: Other books by Dennis Duncan udner review:
  • Babel: Adventures in Translation
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dennis Duncan teaches at University College London.

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© 2022 the complete review

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