Look It Up!

Colleagues who heard University College of London professor Dennis Duncan was writing a book about indexes regarded him skeptically, saying, “Isn’t that a bit . . . niche?” He described the experience in a recent American Ancestors Webinar.

His cleverly titled Index, a History of the, turns out to be livelier than those people may have anticipated. Its significance was underscored when it appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Review of Books last February. What’s more, the history of the index is still developing. When we do a Google search, for example, we are not searching the entire Web, we are searching Google’s index of the Web. The possibility that such an index could be manipulated to provide or obscure certain results has thrust indexing into the political arena.

Having an index was such a good idea, Duncan says, that monks invented it simultaneously in two different places, around the start of the 13th century. One of them (Hugh of St. Cher, pictured; the glasses are an anachronism) was based in Paris, and the other (Robert Grosseteste—“big head”) was in Oxford.

St. Cher wanted to index the Bible by recording the occurrences of every word in it. Starting with “a  a  a  a,” which appears four times, the list was alphabetical and was created to facilitate preaching. As long as monks used their Bibles to read and meditate, an index wasn’t necessary, but once they started preaching they needed to navigate the Bible more efficiently. This type of index was like using Control-F, Duncan says.

Grosseteste, by contrast, created an index much more like the ones we’re familiar with. It was a subject index. But he went far afield with the concept, including in his index all the books he’d read. It was a parchment Google.

For the next approximately 150 years, every copy of every book was still hand-lettered (manu-script, manus being Latin for hand). And the copy was not necessarily the same size as the original. As a result, the page numbers and index were copy-specific; what’s on page 50 in the original may be on page 70 in the copy, if the pages are smaller. Once printing was invented, copies were duplicates, page numbers were consistent, and scholars referring to specific content could be sure they were “all on the same page.”

From the beginning, naysayers criticized people for being “index-readers,” rather than working their way through an entire text. This questioning of colleagues’ scholarly rigor reminds me of today’s critics of Wikipedia users and headline-scanners (guilty).

Several well-known battles between intellectuals broke out in indexes. “Brown, Jeremiah, his dullness, 24, 40-45, 213” and the like. A more recent tweak in an index resulted after Norman Mailer refused to let William F. Buckley quote from his letters in Buckley’s book, The Unmaking of the Mayor. When the book came out, Buckley sent Mailer a copy and in the index, next to Mailer’s name, he wrote “Hi!,” knowing that would be the first thing Mailer would look for and calling him out on it.

2 thoughts on “Look It Up!

  1. Norman Mailer had a tremendous ego so I’m glad William F. Buckley took him down a peg. When I think of Mailer I remember these things: The Naked and the Dead, Mailer’s first big novel; his reporting on the Ali/Foreman heavyweight fight in the 70’s; Mailer and Jose Torres doing a boxing match on the Dick Cavett Show; Mailer and Gore Vidal battling it out on the Cavett show; and Mailer’s terrible attempt at doing a mystery novel-Tough Guys Don’t Dance.
    Buckley I remember for his incredible wit, his Blackford Oakes novels, The Firing Line TV commentary show, and his immense vocabulary. Neither man perfect by a long shot, but they were both giants in the literary field.

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