Index, a History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age

Norton. Feb. 2022. 336p. ISBN 9781324002543. $30. HIST
A book’s index is often taken for granted by the modern reader. However, this tool for retrieving information is neither humble nor invisible and deserves such an in-depth consideration as Duncan (English, Univ. Coll. London; The Oulipo and Modern Thought) delivers here, with a balance of humor and intellectualism. The index has a rather recent history, Duncan writes, as it requires page numbers, which only came into use in the 15th century. Early indexes were, at times, novelties, until scholars realized that integrating page numbers with an alphabetical list would facilitate access to wisdom. As Duncan tells it, authors have sometimes delivered subtle jabs at their peers or subjects by slipping pejoratives and commentary into their indexes; in the digital age, Twitter’s hashtags index one’s thoughts in a similar manner. Duncan’s research on indexes is exhaustive, and there’s an unexpected level of hilarity here. He contends that the modern book—and thought itself—would be diminished if the index had never been invented. Perhaps most enjoyable are Duncan’s 32-page index and the black-and-white photographs of historical book indexes.
VERDICT Backmatter has never enjoyed such a spotlight; sure to amuse bibliophiles and casual readers alike.
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