Making the List

Finding the right page required centuries of experiment

Flickr/Diverse Stock Photos
Flickr/Diverse Stock Photos

Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age by Dennis Duncan; Norton, 352 pp., $30

To understand what an index is, it may help to begin with what it is not.

An index is not a table of contents—such a table would feed multitudes—but it does lay out in more granular form all of the contents of a book. An index is not a concordance, strictly speaking, although they are cousins. A concordance reverentially locates every instance of every significant word of a text—the Bible, originally.

Many readers may regard the index as a highly technical, or boringly meticulous, appendix to a narrative enjoyed perfectly well without one. Dennis Duncan’s winningly titled book begs to differ: an index is a work of art, a rich echo of the text in question, a nest of clues to the essence of the work, and a source of literary fun for centuries.

A lecturer in English at University College London, Duncan has an academician’s thirst for the arcane; after all, one of his previous books is about Oulipo, a group of French-speaking writers and mathematicians who specialize in “constrained writing.” But he is no bibliophilic nerd. His book has sweep, making instructive leaps across centuries, from medieval monks laboriously scratching out their indexes to search engines instantly vomiting useless particularity.

Index, A History of the is a book of revelations. In the craft’s earliest decades, when readers of the codex were few, there was much gnashing of teeth about the menace of the index. It was seen as a potential cheat sheet, a way to avoid reading the book itself. Shades, Duncan reminds us, of the premature news heard today about the death of the book.

You might not guess that in its golden age, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the index was a conspicuous enough enhancement to a book that it inspired a meta-literature of its own. The index was, among other things, a clever way to smite one’s rivals or enemies. Citing the “formal similarity between the economical index entry and the perfectly honed bon mot”—its brevity, the soul of wit—Duncan gives us large helpings of the genre.

Whether it’s the mock-serious paraphrase of bad poetry (“Jewsbury, Miss, cheats time with stuffed owl, 151”), the razor-sharp skewering of a disgraced politician (“Aitken, Jonathan: admires risk-takers, 59; goes to jail, 60”), or the caustic take-down of one’s colleagues (“Peterhouse [College]: high-table conversation not very agreeable, 46; main source of perverts, 113”), the index presents a perfectly sized nook for the deployment of discreet snark.

To choose but one of Duncan’s many instances of indexes put to delightfully malign uses, consider the late-17th-century case of William King’s “A Short Account of Dr. Bentley, by Way of Index.” Ostensibly a helpful guide to Bentley’s work, it is entirely given over to destroying it. One entry:

His egregious dulness, p. 74, 106, 119, 135, 136, 137, 241

His Pedantry, from p. 93 to 99, 144, 216

His Appeal to Foreigners, p. 13, 14, 15

His familiar acquaintance with Books that he never saw, p. 76, 98, 115, 232.

A more recent example of index-related snark (even more recent ones would have been nice here) concerns William F. Buckley’s 1966 book about his quixotic run for mayor of New York, The Unmaking of a Mayor. Buckley had had a friendly spat with Norman Mailer about whether Buckley could quote from their correspondence in the memoir. When it was published, the author sent Mailer a complimentary copy, inscribed. Knowing that Mailer would immediately turn to the index, next to the entry for Mailer, Norman, Buckley scribbled: “Hi!”

John Updike once supposedly remarked that “most biographies are just novels with indexes.” Indeed, the index has inspired extraordinarily creative work by J. G. Ballard, Samuel Richardson, Italo Calvino, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, and Vladimir Nabokov, the conceit of whose Pale Fire is a commentary, annotation, and hilarious index to an imaginary 999-line epic poem.

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.

The indexer atomizes the book’s contents, identifying its personalities and tracking them through the course of the work. She
sifts the ideas at play and mulls over the best labels for them, whether a concept needs to be ramified or subdivided, or whether two related themes might reasonably be rolled up under one head. A challenge, certainly, an exercise in concentration, in deep reading; but not drudgery by any definition.

Duncan winds up his journey with the challenges the digital age poses to indexing as we know it. What’s the point of page numbers in a continuous electronic text? And without page numbers, how do you create an index? He stresses the discernment and common sense that indexing requires, and that artificial intelligence does not (yet) supply. By way of show and tell, as a preface to the index of his own book, Duncan offers the beginning of the same index as generated by indexing software. It is not as pretty a sight as the real one.

Even in “an age of the automated concordance,” Duncan professes not to worry about the fate of the original “random-access technology”—that is, the index. “This is nothing more than a recent outbreak of an old fever. The history of the index is full of such fears—that nobody will read properly any more, that extract reading will take the place of lengthier engagements with books, that we will … forget the old ways of close reading, become deplorably, incurably inattentive—and all because of that infernal tool, the book index.”

You can index Duncan’s breezy dismissal under:

Falling, the sky is not


Graveyard, whistling past the

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Charles Trueheart is a Scholar contributing editor and former director of the American Library in Paris. His book about Vietnam in the Kennedy years, Diplomats at War, is forthcoming.


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