An index is an arsy-versy tool: it enables us to sneak into a book from the rear 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 wide-ranging study of the subject, compares readers who use such short cuts to travellers entering a palace through the privy.
In two less cloacal anecdotes, Duncan identifies the index as a convenient hiding place for academic backstabbers. During the 1690s, a snarky faction at Christ Church, Oxford, defamed the great philologist Richard Bentley by mocking up an index that gave page references for “his egregious dullness” or “his familiar acquaintance with Books that he never saw”. This learned amusement still helps to pass the time in our ancient, addled universities. The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, having spent an embattled few years in the 1980s as master of Peterhouse College, Cambridge, revenged himself on his detested colleagues in the index to a book of essays, where he directed readers to “Peterhouse: high-table conversation not very agreeable, 46; main source of perverts, 113”.
Snipers can exploit such opportunities like this because indexing is so arbitrary and anarchic. It chops up texts and can make prejudicial choices about what deserves to be emphasised; by following alphabetical order, the index, as Duncan says, “turns from content to form, from meaning to spelling”. The alphabet is a “great leveller” and it frees the indexer to take associative leaps, “sparked 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 primal search engine demarcated topics by using Greek and Roman letters, numbers, zodiacal signs and glyphs that resemble “streams of emoticons” as they run down the margins of books. Like Google, the Table lures its user into an ever-expanding, chaotically indiscriminate universe: Grosseteste’s name means “big head”, but no single cranium could ever organise that surfeit of data.
Hoping to regulate this scatter-shot frenzy, the index has often pretended to be morally useful. It began as a convenience for medieval preachers, who needed easy access to biblical quotations; more censoriously, it mimics our index finger, which we use to jab the air and make angry accusations. The Catholic church’s catalogue of heretical books was known simply as The Index and in Hamlet Gertrude fends off her irate son’s assault by demanding why he “thunders in the index”. Samuel Richardson attached an index of “instructive sentiments” to his enormous novel Clarissa in 1755: as a belated corrective measure, this assured readers who might have enjoyed the heroine’s drawn-out erotic agony that their experience had some educational benefit. One of Richardson’s entries therefore rounds up maxims proffering “Advice and Caution to Women”, although a locator for “Rapes” probably excited more fingers to flick back through the book’s 2,000 pages.
Later novelists admit how whimsical and amoral the undertaking is; Lewis Carroll’s index to Sylvie and Bruno includes an entry on “sobriety, extreme, inconvenience of” and another on “fairies, how to improve character of”. Duncan finds Virginia Woolf making a sly joke about Orlando, in which she mythologised the life of her lover Vita Sackville-West. Jealously vexed by Sackville-West’s gender-fluid affairs, Woolf warned her to “look in the Index after Pippin and see what comes next – Promiscuity passim!” The entry she refers to does not exist in the book, so the index finger here is poised between poking and caressing.
Despite this playfulness, Duncan can’t ignore the current worry about instantaneous online searches, which have slashed our attention span and made memory redundant. This slick new “mode of reading and learning” lets technology decipher the world for us. Lotaria in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller feeds a book into her computer, surveys the assortment of repeated words it extracts, then decides on the volume’s meaning and its merit. As Duncan laments, her glance at those frequencies ignores “the things that humans are good at: browsing, synthesizing, interpreting”.
Index, A History of the is subtitled A Bookish Adventure. It is certainly bookish – Duncan sedately enthuses about “the library tradition of communal coffee”, especially if it happens “over a biscuit”. But he is adventurous as well, often writing as if academic research were as revved-up as a Formula One race. Thus he “test-drives” Grosseteste’s “Table” or claims that the advent of numbered pages “turbocharged” the process of index-making. At his most lightheaded, he gets donnishly high on “the musty-sweet leather smell of a medieval manuscript”, while a marginal letter in a 15th-century sermon gives him “the most intense experience I have had of the archival sublime… I feel like I am on the verge of tears”. The reason for this epiphany? What appears to be a capital J is actually the numeral 1, so he is looking at “the first printed page number”. As this scholarly rapture discloses, Duncan inherits his sense of vocation from the studious priests who compiled the earliest indexes: for the true devotee of literature, every book is potentially holy.