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Books have always been a weapon The index can be a surprisingly powerful tool

A Brexit-free index. Credit: Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty

A Brexit-free index. Credit: Eric Cabanis/AFP/Getty


August 27, 2021   5 mins

“Let no damn Tory index my history!” Such, it’s said, was the declaration of the historian Thomas Macaulay on his deathbed. It may surprise some to learn that the innocuous piece of apparatus that you barely notice in the back of a book could inspire such vehemence. But in the 18th century, when the “index wars” raged, it was a political weapon. Whig and Tory partisans took to circulating home-made indexes to their opponents’ works; and, as a hilarious chapter in Dennis Duncan’s new history of the index makes clear, they didn’t even pretend to objectivity.

Here, for instance, is a flavour of “A Short Account Of Dr Bentley, By Way Of Index,” written by one of the theologian Richard Bentley’s opponents:   

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 

This lively episode in intellectual history is a token of something that’s not always so obvious. The modern subject index — these days usually a herbivorous, publisher-commissioned thing — is a work of interpretation and commentary. And it’s a way to poke fun — as another entertaining anecdote from Duncan’s book shows: William F Buckley Jr giving Norman Mailer a copy of his book in which he had written, in big friendly letters, next to Mailer’s name in the index: “Hi!”

The index is also a way of solving the problem of Big Data. As soon as you accumulate even a moderately large collection of written material, the important question becomes not what it contains, but how you make it navigable. That’s where the interpretation comes in: indexers make a body of data useful to its reader. This problem is not new: Duncan’s book draws a historical line that connects Google to the Great Library of Alexandria.

His white whale is the modern subject index. Nowadays, it’s done — or should be — by skilled professionals. I have the honour to serve as honorary president of the Society of Indexers, which trains and accredits the people who do this vital work. Many people — among them, alas, some publishers — seem to think any fool or, ideally, a computer, can do the job. They are wrong. As the words Macaulay uttered on his deathbed make clear, indexes are always — at least if they’re any good — the product of a human hand and a human mind.

Indexers will know as no computer can when “Number Ten” is a metonym for the Prime Minister and when it refers to a building, or that the “Charles” on page 36 refers to the Holy Roman Emperor and that the “Charles” on page 37 refers to the river in Boston. They will have thought about what’s important in the text — what the reader might need to find — and what is not. And indexers specialise: you need to know a bit about physics to index a book on physics, just as knowing a mirepoix from a mirabelle is handy if you’re indexing a cookbook.

 

Of course, they’re part of the furniture now, but as Duncan’s book ably shows, it took civilisation a while to get here. The index relies in its modern form on two technologies that are now conventional but were far from obvious or intuitive when they first came into being: alphabetical order, and page numbering. The former was being used (albeit inconsistently) by the Ancient Greeks; the latter is of more recent vintage. Duncan describes “the most intense experience that I have had of the archival sublime” as he sits in the Bodleian Library. In his hands is a sermon, by a monk called Werner Rolevinck, printed in Cologne in 1470. It’s nothing this monk had to say that interests Duncan. Rather, it’s that halfway up the right-hand margin of the first page is a blurry capital letter J. That is the first printed page number in history.  

Even so, the index or its precursors go back further than that. And what drove its emergence is that people were reading differently. A medieval monk might be expected to make a lifetime’s study of a book. In the famous phrase of Cranmer, he would “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest”. But with the rise of humanist scholarship, and the dissemination of printed texts to preachers and lay people, came a “need for speed”. Readers wanted to be able not just to read books but to refer to them; to quote them; to seek out themes within and between different texts to make arguments or sermons.   

It’s testament to the force of that historical moment that the index ended up being invented not once but twice. Both occasions were in or around the year 1230 — and the two prototypical indexes that resulted are the ancestors of the two main ways that we have come to order information.  

The English scholar and preacher Robert Grosseteste, who was said to have “got his surname from the greatness of his head, having large stowage to receive, and store of brains to fill it” created a Tabula distinctiones — a list of 440 concepts or subjects with locators (there being no page numbers, he had to use his own set of symbols) identifying where they were to be found in his library. Here was an index not to a single book, but to a lifetime’s reading — and the prototype of the modern subject index.

And then there was Hugh of St Cher — prior of the Dominican Friary of St Jacques in Paris — who set a team of his friars to a monumental task of scholarship: an alphabetical index of every word in the Bible with a locator to indicate where in the text it appears. Here was the first proper example of what we now know as a concordance. The difference between a concordance and a subject-index may seem subtle, but it’s important. A former is a mechanically arranged list of words, but the latter is a work, as I say above, of interpretation: it’s a list of concepts. You can look up “conjugal virtue” in a subject index and follow the locator to a passage about just that; even if the words “conjugal” and “virtue” appear nowhere in that section of the text.

That distinction, in one story Duncan tells, saved a man’s life — a 16th-century scholar working on a Biblical concordance escaped execution for heresy only when he could demonstrate that he was doing the mechanical work of reordering the Bible text rather than in any way adding, altering or retranslating it.

The distinction between these two types of index continues to this day. Google, for instance, is not indexing the web in quite the sense that an indexer indexes a book. Rather, it’s compiling a sort of global concordance. No coincidence that its parent company is called Alphabet. Yet, as Duncan observes, the now ubiquitous hashtag on social media is a sort of subject-indexing tool. We still need technologies to make vast data collections navigable — and digital or analogue, those technologies haven’t changed in their underlying nature.

I should say, incidentally, that though the basic idea of indexing a book now has a few centuries of history behind it, it’s only relatively recently that it got called an index. The index, or things like it, have been called a table, register, rubric, repertoriumbreviaturadirectorium, margarita, pye and, a little poetically, remembraunceThat last one, as Duncan points out, seems to touch on the idea that the index is an aide-memoire: you’ve read the book, and the index (which is nowadays typically at the back of the book, though it wasn’t always) helps you remember and revisit it.

And that points to another anxiety. As soon as indexes were established, cultural gatekeepers started to worry that people would use them the wrong way. They feared that “index-learning” would become a thing: a new generation would stop reading properly, and just pick the plums out of books with the help of this dumbed-down new technology; just as university tutors now, I imagine, will be fretting that their students’ deft quotations are the result of a Google Books search rather than thoughtful note-taking in the course of reading their sources.   

If nothing else, the precedent of these tutors’ anxieties serves to bring a little perspective to the fear that Google and Wikipedia are killing real learning and real reading off, and making us all slaves to decontextualised factoids floating in the digital shallows. New technologies and new ways of reading have always occasioned such fears. So, once, did reading itself. Plato’s Phaedrus describes how the king of the gods, Thamus, responded to the invention of the written word: “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom…” 

File, perhaps as: “Sun, Nothing New Under The.”


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator and the author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page
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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

This is a fun and informative article. I would never have guessed there’s such a thing as a Society of Indexers, but we live in a hyperspecialized world.
I wonder which type of index the Dewey Decimal System for organizing library books would fall under. It has certainly been the subject of controversy over the years about its classification of politically sensitive topics.
So far as alternative names for an index go, I certainly agree that ‘remembraunce’ is the most poetic. If I pay Unherd extra I wonder if their IT whiz will create a remembraunce of the Collected Comments of Bryant, J (including replies thereto)? 🙂

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

DDC is, as you say, a classification system – one of many library classification schemes (and here we will try not to think of UDC). In the first university I went to we didn’t have a subject catalogue, just a duplicate set of catalogue cards filed by the Dewey numbers – we used the DDC index as the subject guide to the numbers. Worked well.
Librarians are great fans of the book index. Things to consider when purchasing a book is the reputation of the author and publisher, reviews, and then the quality of the index can be used as another clue as to the quality of the book.

Kasia Chapman
Kasia Chapman
2 years ago

What a delightful read, very unusual to UnHerd as it will not generate heated debate yet much appreciated.

I teach in 6th form college and often tell my students that the world is changing so fast, they will be doing jobs that have not been created yet. The most recent bunch of examples are COVID related . But there are so many occupations that we do not know about even though they have been around for a long time. I will be delighted to give an example of an indexer. I myself thought that nowadays it is done by a computer program but I see why a human mind is essential to extract meaning from a context that no algorithm is able to do. Perhaps I will recommend this occupation to my students as the one in a shrinking pool of jobs that cannot be replaced (easily) by AI.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Kasia Chapman

I remember my headmaster giving us this exact same talk shortly before we did our A-levels and went to university. This was in 2000, when it was just dawning on people that our generation (and the ones to follow) would not have lives like our parents – staying in one job all our lives.
I didn’t really like the man, but I do often think of that speech and how ahead of his time he was.

Bob Pugh
BP
Bob Pugh
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

When I read “Society of Indexers” I called “bull-shit” on the article only to google it and find it’s true. https://www.indexers.org.uk/

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago

Really interesting article, thank you!
We should revivify the index as a way to – to use an American phrase – “throw shade”. “A Short Account Of Dr Bentley, By Way Of Index” sounds like a pretty devastating piece of writing…if you happened to be Dr. Bentley…

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
MT
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago

My PhD supervisor Frank Kermode advised me in our first meeting ‘always take a book up by the index’. Good advice but problematic when it came to books in French which do not (or barely) use indexes. I hope Duncan gives some space for cultural differences in the ways the index developed.

Christopher Barclay
CB
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

The attractive woman reading the Maastricht Treaty on the beach must have been doping it for one of two reasons. Perhaps she thought it would repel unwanted advances. If not, she must have been checking that the text was boring enough so that, if her partner read it while making love, it would stop him from prematurely ejaculating.

Trevor Chenery
Trevor Chenery
2 years ago

Extremely attractive. And no pic credit. Perhaps a friend of Sam?

Trevor Chenery
Trevor Chenery
2 years ago
Reply to  Trevor Chenery

Pic (c) Eric Cabanis obvs.

Dawn McD
Dawn McD
2 years ago

I thought you were just supposed to think about baseball. At least that would leave your hands free.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I immediately remembered Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Cats Cradle’ and the indexers tale:

Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle includes a character who is a professional indexer and believes that “indexing [is] a thing that only the most amateurish author [undertakes] to do for his own book.” She claims to be able to read an author’s character through the index he created for his own history text, and warns the narrator, an author, never index your own book”

And of course, the mad writer creating the mad index:

” Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire includes a parody of an index, reflecting the insanity of the narrator.”

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
2 years ago

“Google, nothing unnoticed in the Web” might be an appropriate descriptor for whatever it is that we have now.
Alas, as much as I love to hate Google, I’ll take it–or Bing, or DuckduckGo, any day, over twitter, which is the absolutely ultimate destroyer of properly relevant public discourse.
And facebook would more appropriately be called “Maskbook,” because it does not present reality, but rather a thrice-edited version thereof.
But please, Sam, allow me to interpose this one tribute to a gallant knight in this present http://www.joust between competing identities: Wikipedia!
Wikipedia is the sanctuary protectorate of all decent communication! Wikipedia is a stronghold island of classic information and collective, dutiful editing.
Roll on, Oh Wikipedia! Sail past the Siren-song of mere entertainment and destabilizing diversion. Sail on, Wikipedia, ‘cross the depths of ancient learning; glide o’er the oceans of human discovery; find rest and contemplation on the shores of Gilead, the docks of Arcadia and the depths of Academia.
Sail on, Oh Wikipedia!
Sail on, Sam! in your exploration of whatever’s out there on the webb’ed shores of universal ubiquity and those unexplored frontiers of fantasy, fallacy and tomfoolery!
Leave no stone unturned in your Search for alphabetic Relevance in you Quest for topical Relevance!