A playful history of the humble index and its outsized effect on our reading lives.
The index is perhaps the most underused part of a book if an index is supplied. Dennis Duncan celebrates the origins of the lonely index.
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.
Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English at University College London. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books, and he is the coeditor of Book Parts. He lives in London.