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By Bridget Blair AE 

I started reading this book just after attending Max McMaster’s indexing course for Editors Victoria, when my mind was already attuned to the importance of the humble list of words hiding at the back of so many books. The cleverly named Index, a history of the expanded this understanding in a most enjoyable way.

Professor Duncan’s history of the index is really a history of information science from medieval monasteries to Silicon Valley, tracing “our accelerating need to access information at speed”. He examines the small innovations that we take for granted, such as alphabetical order (first employed for cataloguing at the Great Library of Alexandria), the codex, and the page number (a medieval invention now often replaced by digital locators).

Crucial to the story is the difference between the “subject index” and the concordance (“word index”, which simply lists the occurrences of individual words in a text). Both forms were developed around the same time, but the former, which lists the subjects, themes and ideas in a text, entails subjectivity, interpretation and judgement – which meant it was considered heretical when first applied to the Bible.

Duncan goes on to describe how the newfangled index was resisted in the 17th century by those who thought it was “cheating” and that it was destined to make readers more stupid – the same to-hell-in-a-handcart argument sometimes raised about Google today.

But this history is no dry textbook. At heart, it’s a celebration of the people behind the development of the index and their very human stories. The author covers a range of less familiar names through to literary heroes including Homer, Aristotle, Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll. (I loved Carroll’s absurd index entry General, Things in 25.)

Duncan shows how indexes have been “weaponised” to fuel spats between politicians and estranged spouses and shares many examples of witty “index snark”. His book also takes delightful excursions into fiction that has played with the concept: stories written and revealing themselves through indexes (such as Nabokov’s Pale fire and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando).

The icing on the cake is the index of the book itself, created by a professional indexer, which, as well as being a fully functioning proper index, is full of insider jokes. For example:

lost cause see fool’s errand

fool’s errand see fruitless endeavour

fruitless endeavour see hopeless quest

… and on it goes.

Broad-ranging, entertaining and accessible, this is surely a book that will appeal to wordies and anyone of an editorial bent.