Index, A History of the cover

Index, A History of the

Dennis Duncan
Penguin, Paperback

I did not expect to laugh out loud while reading a proper scholarly history of the index.  But I did, several times. And I now know that the little pointing hand in the margin is a manicule: ? (see also here).

I did not realise that an index might be more than a handy tool.  In the course of Duncan’s account, we find out than an index can be so many other things.  For example, a means of revenge, a strange addition to fiction, or a way to satirise an author.  We get information on the first things organised by alphabet, the first page numbers, and all kinds of natty anecdotes.  One of my favourite bits is 19th century historian J. Horace Round’s extensive diss-fest index entry on his nemesis Professor Edward Freeman, which includes “his ‘certain’ history”, “misconstrues his Latin”, “his failure” and “his special weakness” (p. 14-15).

I am a fan of a good index.  They can drive you nuts if they are absent or shoddy.  Why would anyone make a travel book without at least a location index?  Am I supposed to memorise the location of every café that makes the best bath buns or Black Forest gateaux?  One of the most enjoyable I’ve seen recently is the one for Rob Halford’s Confess, in which the Judas Priest frontman’s life is summarised under the entry for Halford, Rob.  But this leads to another topic covered in the History, namely the suggestion that students might cheat (gasp) by reading only the index instead of the actual book. Another favourite is in Donald Knuth’s The Art of Computer Programming (volume 3 from 1973). He references “royalties, use of”, and this refers to the purchase of his dream pipe organ (see here).

Index, A History of the has been added to my list of relaxing and entertaining non-fiction that I have found helpful during the pandemic.  During the first lockdown, I realised that the most engaging reading I was doing was well written non-fiction on topics about which I knew nothing (lots of scope here, obviously).  Top hits for me were Born to Kvetch, Gathering Moss, and Entangled Life.

Make time to work your way through this book’s own index.  It is enormous fun and had me cackling.  This is what I’ll be getting for my bookish people for Christmas this year.

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One response to “Index, A History of the”

  1. […] an index for the paperback.  If anyone needs convincing of why indexes are great, see my review of Dennis Duncan’s excellent book on just this […]

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