Index by Dennis Duncan

3 out of 5 stars

Ever had that moment when you remember reading something in a book and can’t remember what page it was on? I do frequently, especially when I am trying to find a quote for a review and when it is a fiction book I can sometimes not find what I am looking for at all. With non-fiction, I often stand a better chance as there is a tool I can use at the back of the book called the index.

It is the part of the book that people rarely venture too and I don’t always look at them, but there are points when trying to find a particular reference that is invaluable. But they need one other thing to work properly and that is page numbering. An index that can tell you what is in a book, but can’t tell you where to find it is not a lot of use…

He begins with just how we order things and the origins of the alphabet and how a man called Callimachus organised the 40,00 or so scrolls of Ptolemy II. Cicero the great Roman stateman also had an extensive library and he solved the problem of finding the scroll he needed by tags tied to the end of the scrolls. And it was these tags that gave us the word, index.

By the middle ages, the people that needed to find various references in books were the church and the codex, or the book format as we are familiar with nowadays had long been available. The two things that bring them together were the teaching and preaching of the age. Various religious men began to develop methods of finding scriptural references that they needed for sermons and the techniques caught on and were taken and developed by others.

The addition of page numbers would be a big help, but an index that referred to page numbers was not always accurate when dealing with handwritten books. A different scribe that had a larger script, could be producing a book that was several pages longer than the original. Ironically we have come full circle now as an e-reader can increase or decrease the font size making the page referencing nonsense…

He expands further on the way that these systems developed and ventures into the foolhardy attempts to try to index fiction. There is a section on searching the web, when you look for something on Google, you are not searching the web, rather you are looking at their index of pages and references that their bots have extracted, filtered and sorted.

It is not a bad book overall, but I did have the odd issue with it. I liked the way that he goes right back to find the very origins of the index and that the book is peppered with images from books and other sources as well as being crammed full of references and quotes. I liked that he had used a computer-generated index and a human-created index so you can see the differences between the two and make your own judgement about which s the best. This must be one of the few books with two indexes. However, I thought that the prose was a little dry and academic at times and thought that the narrative was not as strong as it could have been. Definitely one for the book geek.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    I agree wholeheartedly! I got really bogged down in all that 18th century satirical indexing stuff, in fact skimmed a bit of it! I wanted it to be a little bit better than it was, and I say that as a total book geek who used to work in a rare books library, so if I got bogged down …

    • Paul

      I thought it was just me, glad it isn’t though. Non-fiction books still need that narrative to make them readable.

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