Index, a history of the a bookish adventure

by Dennis Duncan

Ebook, 2021



Call number

AN 95100 D911



[London] Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books 2021


"Most of us give little thought to the back of the book-it's just where you go to look things up. But as Dennis Duncan reveals in this delightful and witty history, hiding in plain sight is an unlikely realm of ambition and obsession, sparring and politicking, pleasure and play. In the pages of the index, we might find Butchers, to be avoided, or Cows that sh-te Fire, or even catch Calvin in his chamber with a Nonne. Here, for the first time, is the secret world of the index: an unsung but extraordinary everyday tool, with an illustrious but little-known past. Charting its curious path from the monasteries and universities of thirteenth-century Europe to Silicon Valley in the twenty-first, Duncan uncovers how it has saved heretics from the stake, kept politicians from high office, and made us all into the readers we are today. We follow it through German print shops and Enlightenment coffee houses, novelists' living rooms and university laboratories, encountering emperors and popes, philosophers and prime ministers, poets, librarians and-of course-indexers along the way. Revealing its vast role in our evolving literary and intellectual culture, Duncan shows that, for all our anxieties about the Age of Search, we are all index-rakers at heart-and we have been for eight hundred years"--… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a delightful history of the index! The history is largely anecdotal: Duncan focuses a lot on a few specific indexes. Some of them get his attention because they were influential in the history of the book and the organization of knowledge, and some get his attention because they're a lot of
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fun (there's a whole chapter devoted to the index as a tool of snarky intellectual roasting). There are some topics that are missing, such as the interplay between indexing and standardized spelling (how do you put things in alphabetical order when everybody spells differently?), and the relationship between indexing inside and outside of books (how did the index interact with library catalogues and other information organization systems?). The chapter on search engines and how they have changed our access to information also felt slim.... But those are minor criticisms because this is a delightful and interesting book. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the index: it was probably the best part of the book because it is not only full of jokes but also directly illustrates some of the things Duncan discussed in the book.
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LibraryThing member adzebill
What a delight; a dry witty book about what would seem on the face of it like the dullest of subjects—the history of the index. Sprinkled with asides, like the fact that the first publication of the Index Society, Henry Wheatley's 1878 What Is An Index, had no index. The index of the book itself,
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made it is stressed by an actual human indexer, is superb and also sprinkled with jokes.
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LibraryThing member dono421846
This delightful book belongs in the company of other like A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order and The Footnote: A Curious History, which force us to more to the foreground something that we take for granted and treat as so obvious as to not have a history of its own.
LibraryThing member MickyFine
An entertaining and erudite history of the index that thoroughly appealed to the part of my brain that is fascinated by how we organize, search, and locate information. Duncan's work is well-researched but also highly readable with plenty of allusions to familiar cultural touchstones and not just
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obscure medieval texts (although be warned he does spoil the whodunnit of The ABC Murders). The work also includes excellent endnotes and, of course, a gorgeous index whose creator he gives full credit. Fans of book history as well as those interested in information architecture and searching tools will find things to enjoy here.
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LibraryThing member capewood
2022 Book #49. 2022. You probably know that the index of a book can be quite useful. An interesting look at how the book index was developed and how it has morphed into the Internet age. A little dry in parts but I liked it.
LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
I punted on listening to this book after a third of it. It was pretty boring, especially as an audio book. For instance, in one part Duncan lists all of the index entries for a topic from one particular book. It went on and on for probably three or four minutes straight. In print form, a reader
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could just skip ahead after getting the point, but when listening to the book, the listener has to sit through all of that. I decided enough was enough and quit listening, which isn’t typical of me.
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LibraryThing member Dokfintong
"A New York Times Editors' Choice Book and a New Yorker Best Book of 2022 So Far". Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by Literary Hub **and Goodreads"

Super book about the Index and how it came to be. Dennis Duncan is a good writer. The text is erudite and fun to read. I recommend this book
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LibraryThing member fionaanne
The text is abnormally large and the digressions lengthy. Interesting at times but this would have made a better article as there's not enough information to sustain book-length attention here.
LibraryThing member bell7
I confess: I picked this book out on title alone. It's clever. And I love books about books and their history - I have a small collection of and about dictionaries, for example - but this topic was a little new for me. And you may be excused for thinking that a book about that end of the book,
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helpful to browse through when you're looking to research a topic or see where, say, Churchill is mentioned would be dry and dull unless you were an academic or someone who otherwise had a very specific interest in the topic.

If that's your impression, you'd be wrong about this book. Duncan takes the history of the index and not only covers the basics - such as early concordances, adding Bible chapter and verses, page numbers - but also makes the personalities of some of the people who argued about (and through!) indexes come alive. This is witty, humorous, and accessible. I grant you it may still be for a very select audience of book lovers, but if you're at all on the fence about it, I urge you to try it and see if you don't come away with an appreciation into what went into creating this particular way we organize information. If you have any doubt on where I came down on it, I'll just say... I even read the index.
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LibraryThing member john.cooper
A lot of fun, like attending a class whose lecturer turns out to be TED talk entertaining, but with a better sense of humor. Best chapter: the story of a period in British history when politico-academic feuds were conducted by republishing an opponent's work with a new, mocking index. Bonus: this
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book's own index is fun to read, with lots of "easter eggs" (hidden jokes and special features). Recommended to anyone who's ever depended upon an index, or even enjoyed one.
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LibraryThing member spinsterrevival
There were these little sprinkles of fascinating information throughout this book, but they were so sparse that I was quite bored the rest of the time. It might have been nice for him to find some more actual indexers (or perhaps some retired ones) to learn more about their experiences too; I've
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read enough Barbara Pym that it actually seems like a really interesting job to me, but I honestly can't remember if the author talks about the future of it or if the role is dying out in this day and age.
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