Book Review: "Index, A History of the" by Dennis Duncan

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Monks reading books, and pointing at an index.

Most of us give little thought to the back of the book - it's just where you go to look things up. But here, hiding in plain sight, is an unlikely realm of ambition and obsession, sparring and politicking, pleasure and play. Here we might find Butchers, to be avoided, or Cows that sh-te Fire, or even catch Calvin in his chamber with a Nonne. This is the secret world of the index: an unsung but extraordinary everyday tool, with an illustrious but little-known past. Here, for the first time, its story is told.

This is a curious and charming book. It's a book about books - more specifically, the last few pages of a book that you turn to if you can't remember where an entry was mentioned. A meta-meta book, if you will.

I'll confess - I don't think I've ever used an index. Not for study nor for leisure. Almost all of my reading since the turn of the century has been digital - so I hit CTRL+F when I want to find something. And, if I'm honest, I thought that indexes (never indices) were compiled automatically. I had no idea that that in the modern world, it was someone's actual job to create a useful index.

The history of organising thought is extraordinary. Once we reached "Big Data" (too many scrolls to fit on a single shelf) it becomes obvious that humans need metadata to make sense of the vast troves of material we generate. The book goes from the earliest invention of indexing, through its surge is popularity, up to the modern day. It covers the fashions, the spats, and the technology which unlocked its popularity.

It almost exclusively focuses on English and Latin. It would have been nice to learn about non-European indexes.

If you're a lover of books, you'll love this. It is a warm and witty look at the development of reading technology - and how it has helped shape both the world and the written word. It has some beautiful images of early books which illustrate the main next nicely.

Who knew that indexes could be so political and cause so much controversy? It shouldn't surprise me, of course. Gathering and presenting data is not a neutral act.

Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy. The book comes out later in 2021 and can be pre-ordered from the following links:

📚 Enjoyed this review? Buy me a book from my wishlist.

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