Book discussion: Index

Index, by Dennis Dutton, was favourably reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the NY Times and the Washington Post. I put a hold on it while the Greater Victoria library system had it on order.

As the reviews promised, the book has anecdotes about British writers, including the historian MacAulay, the 18th century novelist Samuel Richardson, the mathematician/logician/novelist Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) and the 20th century novelist Virginia Woolf. It has stories about unsuccessful efforts to index works of fiction in English, fictional indices in fiction and the uses of hostile indices as polemical attacks on adversaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is, as the reviewers said, literate and witty. It is short, informative and funny in places.

The book tells stories about the history of books and the efforts of classical, medieval and Renaissance scholars to create indices of religious, scientific and philosophical works. The book touches on

  • the innovations in the technologies of making records of information – papyrus, scrolls, the codex (bound book), paper, the printing press, the invention of page numbering, and
  • the tools used to structure records – the table of contents, the concordance and the subject index.

The book explains the labour necessary to create works like Index of Periodical Literature started by William Frederick Poole in the 19th century, and efforts of Josephine Miles, in the 1950s, to convert the notes of the deceased scholar Guy Montgomery to punchcards to create a database to complete and publish Montgomery’s Concordance of the works of the 18th century poet John Dryden. The book touches on creation in the 1980s and 1990s of the personal computer software used by modern index professionals to create indices for and in (inline) modern works, such as MACREX, CINDEX and SKY Index, and explains the development of tags and markup to generate indexes in flowing text in ebooks. The discussion of tags leads to a discussion of the use of hash (#)tags in Twitter, which leads to the evocative hashtag created by publicists for the release of a 2012 album by the singer Susan Boyle [#susananalbumparty].

The book lacks a bibliography, but has enough endnotes to credit sources of information.


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