Monday, November 29

Index, A History of Dennis Duncan’s Review – Academic Anarchy | History books


TOn index is a very versatile tool: it allows us to sneak into a book from the end, saving the time it would take to advance through the text from the beginning. Jonathan Swift, quoted by Dennis Duncan in his witty and comprehensive study of the subject, compares readers who use these shortcuts to travelers entering a palace through the toilet.

In two less cloacal anecdotes, Duncan identifies the index as a convenient hiding place for academic stabbers. During the 1690s, a sarcastic faction at Christ Church, Oxford, slandered the great philologist Richard Bentley by mocking an index that gave page references to “his appalling clumsiness” or “his familiarity with books he never saw.” This learned fun still helps to pass the time in our old and confusing colleges. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, having spent a few years in conflict in the 1980s as a teacher at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, took revenge on his detested colleagues in the index of a book of essays, where he directed readers to “ Peterhouse: high-table conversation not very pleasant, 46; main source of perverts, 113 ”.

Snipers can take advantage of opportunities like this because indexing is so arbitrary and lawless. Cut texts and can make damaging decisions about what deserves to be emphasized; Following alphabetical order, the index, as Duncan puts it, “moves from content to form, from meaning to spelling.” The alphabet is a “great leveler” and frees the indexer for associative jumps, “triggered by a single word or concept, firing unpredictably in multiple directions.” An example is the Table of Distinctions compiled by the 13th century scholastic philosopher. Robert Grosseteste, which Duncan calls “a Google on parchment.” Grosseteste’s primordial search engine demarcated topics using Greek and Roman letters, numbers, zodiacal signs, and glyphs that resemble “streams of emoticons” that run along the margins of books. Like Google, the Table draws its user into an ever-expanding chaotically indiscriminate universe: Grosseteste’s name means “big head,” but no skull could organize that excess data.

In the hope of regulating this sparse shooting frenzy, the index has often pretended to be morally useful. It began as a convenience for medieval preachers, who needed easy access to biblical quotes; more censoriously, it mimics our index finger, which we use to punch the air and make angry accusations. The catalog of heretical books of the Catholic Church was known simply as The Index and in Village Gertrude defends herself against her irate son’s aggression by demanding why he “thunders on the index”. Samuel Richardson attached an index of “instructive sentiments” to his huge novel Clarissa in 1755: as a belated corrective measure, this assured readers who might have enjoyed the heroine’s prolonged erotic agony that her experience had some educational benefit. Thus, one of Richardson’s entries completes the maxims offering “Tips and Precautions for Women,” although a “Rape” locator likely caused more fingers to flick through the book’s 2,000 pages.

Later novelists admit how capricious and amoral the enterprise is; Lewis Carroll index for Sylvie and Bruno includes an entry on “extreme sobriety, inconvenience of” and another on “fairies, how to improve the character of”. Duncan finds Virginia Woolf making a sneaky joke about Orlando, in which he mythologized the life of his lover Vita Sackville-West. Jealously upset about Sackville-West’s gender fluidity issues, Woolf warned her to “index Pippin and see what comes next: Promiscuity transmission! “The entry you are referring to does not exist in the book, so the index finger here is between itching and stroking.

Despite this joy, Duncan cannot ignore the current concern about instant online searches, which have reduced our attention span and made memory redundant. This sleek new “reading and learning mode” allows technology to decipher the world for us. Lotaria in the novel by Italo Calvino If on a winter night a traveler He plugs a book into his computer, examines the variety of repeated words it extracts, and then decides on the meaning of the volume and its merit. As Duncan laments, his gaze at those frequencies ignores “the things humans are good at: navigating, synthesizing, interpreting.”

Index, a history of the it’s subtitled A bookish adventure. It’s certainly a book: Duncan is quietly enthusiastic about “the community cafe library tradition,” especially if it happens “with a cookie.” But he is also adventurous, often writing as if academic research is as fast-paced as a Formula One race. Thus, he “proves” Grosseteste’s “Table” or claims that the advent of numbered pages “boosted” the process. index creation. In his most dazed moment, he gets drunk on “the sweet, stale leather smell of a medieval manuscript,” while a marginal letter in a 15th-century sermon gives him “the most intense experience I have ever had of the archival sublime. .. I feel on the verge of tears ”. The reason for this epiphany? What appears to be a capital J is actually the number 1, so you are looking at “first printed page number”. As this scholarly rapture reveals, Duncan inherits his sense of calling from the scholarly priests who compiled the first indexes: To the true devotee of literature, every book is potentially sacred.

Index, a history of the by Dennis Duncan is published by Allen Lane (£ 20). To support the guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply


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