A bookish adventure from medieval manuscripts to the digital age

Dennis Duncan is a writer, translator and professor of English at University College London. He has published numerous scholarly works, including book parts, The Oulipoand modern thinking, as well as translations by Michel Foucault, Boris Vian and Alfred Jarry. His writings have appeared in the Guardianthe Times Literary Supplementand the London book review. Recent articles have focused on Mallarmé and the pitchers, James Joyce and pornography, and the history of the Times New Roman.

Below, Dennis shares 5 key insights from his new book, Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. Listen to the audio version – read by Dennis himself – in the Next Big Idea app.

1. Google is an index.

It took me seven years to research the history of the index, and I often got the reaction of “Um, isn’t that a bit of a niche?” The best answer is, “Well, when was the last time you used a search engine?” Or a hashtag? Or press Ctrl + F to browse a document? »

We live in the age of research. Our phones, tablets and laptops open up a bottomless well of information that we can freely draw from. When we talk, read, or watch TV, our fingers constantly twitch on our devices, ready to answer any question that comes to mind.

But as one of Google’s engineers, Matt Cutts, explains, “The first thing to understand is that when you search on Google, you’re not actually searching the web. You search the Google index of the web. The story of the clue is the story of how we ended up here. The technology that underpins our information age dates back to the Middle Ages.

Indexes (always indexdo not clues) are among those inventions that are so successful, so integrated into our daily practices, that they often become invisible. But the next time you’re looking for something, whether on your phone or at the end of a book, remember you’re using a tool invented by monks in the 13th century, which they used to create their own research era by accelerating access to information.

2. Are we all on the same page?

Searching for indexes meant spending a lot of time in the company of medieval manuscripts. They are books, but they are all handwritten. That’s what manuscript means: manuscript. Before the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, every book had to be written by hand. If you wanted a copy of a book, then this was really a copy: you would have to pay someone to copy it. It was very expensive and would take months. And while the person copying it would go to great lengths to ensure that they copied the text accurately, they would pay no attention to whether things stayed on the same page as the original. After all, they could be copying from a large book to a small book, or vice versa. So, page numbers in the Middle Ages aren’t very useful, because they only work for a particular copy of a book.

“The technology that underpins our information age dates back to the Middle Ages.”

A few years ago I was looking at a manuscript in the library of St. John’s College, Cambridge. It was a history book from the 1380s that had been copied by a monk named John Lutton. (He signed his name at the end, bless him. Copyists often did this, much like an artist signing a painting. After all, they had spent literally months working on it.) At the end of this book d There’s an index in history, and poor old John Lutton couldn’t figure out how it worked because he copied the index with the exact same page numbers as the book he was copying. The whole index is like a web page where every link takes you to a 404 PAGE NOT FOUND error.

But the problem disappears overnight when the print arrives. Now, as long as your book and my book are from the same print run, we can be on the same page, as the expression goes. We can share references, use footnote citations to back up our work, create an index for any book (not just the Bible with its chapter divisions) and know it works on any edition . All of this was only a few decades too late for poor old John Lutton.

If you think about the present, reading a web page, like a long story on a news site where the text scrolls as long as it takes, or reading on a Kindle where you can zoom in or zoom out the font, by changing the amount of text on the page, we go back to the medieval problem that John Lutton faced. The page is no longer a stable unit; we will need different locators if we want to index them.

3. There are many ways to read.

I have described our present moment as the Age of Search, but you may have heard it described as the Age of Distraction. In 2008, a writer named Nicholas Carr wrote an influential article asking if Google is making us stupid, but it’s not a new idea.

Ever since the index was invented, it has had detractors: people worried that searching will replace reading, that slow, patient, linear reading will be driven out by the ability to instantly find the piece we’re looking for. In 1532, the great intellectual Erasmus of Rotterdam published a book which took the form of an index, and he wrote in the preface: “I had to do this because nowadays it is the only part of a book that people read. 200 years later, the Irish writer Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) wrote about “men who pretend to understand a book by skimming the index finger, as if a traveler were to describe a palace, when he had seen only the toilets”.

“People have been complaining about indexes for 500 years, and yet we To do still read books. That’s literally why I’m telling you about my book.

So people have been complaining about indexes for 500 years, and yet we To do still read books. That’s literally why I’m telling you about my book – the pessimists haven’t been right yet.

This is because they misunderstand the word “reading”. There’s no a kind of reading. The idea that “no one reads properly anymore” is a misconception. Do you do the same thing when you read a novel as when you read a newspaper? What about an email, a restaurant menu, a train schedule or a tweet? All of these are reading, but they are all different activities, resulting in different attention economies. They each have different stories, they sprung up at different times to meet different needs, and we run a lot of them in a single day. Doing one doesn’t mean we can’t do another, so don’t be afraid of index-learning. Using an index, regardless of its format, is just one way to read.

4. New technologies are susceptible to subversion.

You might think indexes are a very dry, or at least sensible, serious, and responsible thing. I won’t tell you that’s not true for the most part, but like any technology, once everyone learns to use it, some people start to personalize it, find uses for which it doesn’t have not originally designed, and have fun with it.

Book indexes have a very recognizable syntax: short, concise, backwards. This is humorous, because after all, as Polonius says in Hamlet, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” So we find people using the back of the book to bury a perfectly formed snark. There’s the disgraced British politician, for example, who appears in a book index as: “Aitken, Jonathan, admires risk takers 59, goes to jail, 60.” Or the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who attacks his colleagues at Cambridge College in an index entry: “Peterhouse [College]: table conversation not very pleasant, 46; main source of pervert, 113.”

“It has become a fashion to publish rogue indexes to rivals’ books, pointing out all their moments of pomposity or poppishness or simply bad grammar.”

The index finger first became a weapon as a satirical tool at the turn of the 18th century. The first example was in a book attacking a scholar named Richard Bentley. The index lists all the unpleasant aspects of Bentley’s character: “his blatant stupidity”, “his pedantry”, “his familiarity with books he has never seen”, etc. Soon it became a fad to publish rogue indexes of rivals’ books, pointing out all their pompous or poppish moments or just plain bad grammar. (If you think public swearing was invented in the 1960s, think again.)

So, do we find the index being subverted and used in fun ways in the digital age? Of course we do. Just type “askew” into Google to see the playfulness that has been deliberately coded there. The search engine does not do exactly what you expect.

5. Humans always make better indexers.

The kind of snark I’ve described is the stuff of human relationships: one person’s withdrawal from another. This reminds us that a good book index, whether spiritual or not, always requires a good indexer, that is, an expert reader who anticipates the things we will want to search for. The good indexer knows that it can be useful to label a concept even if it is not explicitly named, so that a passage on Jean-Paul Sartre could justify an entry under “existentialism”, or that a gardener might look for the common or the common. Botanical name of a plant. A good indexer knows that when a text mentions “the White House”, it designates sometimes the building, sometimes (by metonymy) its occupant. And they can tell the difference, without first names, between Marx, Karl; Marx, Groucho; and Marx, Richard.

My book includes two indexes at the end: one compiled automatically by the latest indexing software, the other by Paula Clarke Bain, professional indexer from Manchester, England and member of the Society of Indexers. The difference between them is striking. Paula’s is full of life – her entries sing: “Bentley, Richard, its blatant heaviness, etc., 148”, “reward, weak, for indexers, 207”. It contains jokes, anagrams and crossword clues. In other words, he’s imbued with Paula’s personality. The software, on the other hand, offers only a vast table of words and phrases, fragments extracted (apparently arbitrarily) from the text: “amateur, single, 13”, “amused answers, 256”. Despite all the miraculous advances in universal digital research tools, there is still a place for professional book indexer deep reading.

To listen to the audio read by author Dennis Duncan, download the Next Big Idea app today:

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