Duncan offers us a number of feuds that concerned a weaponized index. One sterling instance from the late seventeenth century was a pamphlet lampooning a rival scholar with an index telling readers the place they could study extra about “His egregious dullness,” “His Pedantry,” “His assortment of Asinine Proverbs.” One other instance was wilier — an expert indexer slipped a few of his personal Whig sympathies into the again of a guide written by a staunch Tory, together with a subtly worded reference to a wild Whig conspiracy principle involving a child and a warming pan.
That Duncan brings these previous, intricate disputes to life is a testomony to his presents as a author — imaginative but additionally disciplined, elucidating dense, scholarly ideas with a light-weight contact. He additionally consists of examples of fictional indexes as a way to draw consideration to the shape’s peculiarities. (Duncan’s earlier books embody one concerning the Oulipo, the avant-garde group whose writers experimented with constraints, together with indexes.) In J.G. Ballard’s story “The Index,” the final entry, starting with Z, is essentially the tip of the narrative; the identical goes for the index that gives the final line to Nabokov’s novel “Pale Fireplace” — “Zembla, a distant northern land.”
However a part of what makes an index so helpful is that its sequence isn’t aligned with the construction of the work it refers to in any respect. This incongruence, a splitting aside of content material and kind, is a part of what used to trigger a lot hand-wringing: Would readers of an intimidatingly large guide resolve solely to skim the simulacrum — the bite-size abstract supplied by the index — as an alternative of immersing themselves in the true factor?
Duncan finds analogous anxieties in our Age of Search — the suspicion that by making it ever simpler to entry info, Google may actually be making us lazier and dumber, permitting us to glide alongside the shallows as an alternative of forcing us to enterprise into the depths. Duncan is much less anxious. “It’s good for the nerves, I believe, to have some historic perspective,” he writes. However he permits that our infatuation with digital search has maybe endangered one thing else — the artwork of the index, which has historically borne the imprint of the human being who compiles it.
“Index, A Historical past of the” is furnished not with one index however two. The primary, which is partial, was created by industrial indexing software program that spat out a “squall of entries,” together with ineffective ones for “alas” and “all of the letters.” The second was compiled by Paula Clarke Bain, an expert indexer. I don’t wish to give something away (phrases I by no means thought I’d use about an index), apart from to say that its relationship to Duncan’s textual content is not only as a information but additionally as a companion. Duncan has written such a beneficiant guide, attentive to the forms of the studying expertise, that it’s solely becoming he gave Bain’s index some area to flourish, an opportunity to come back into its personal.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/09/books/review-index-history-of-dennis-duncan.html A Sensible, Playful Ebook Concerning the Underappreciated Index