Finding things in books

I suppose it’s almost inevitable that if one begins to take a deeper interest in the history of science, then at some point one’s attention turns to the history of the book. After all, whether in the form of wedges impressed in clay tablets, symbols carved in stone or wood[1], or various forms of writing on leaves, papyrus, parchment, vellum or paper, books are the medium with which creators of knowledge transmit that knowledge to other. Science based only on oral transmission would develop very slowly and not very far. 

My interest began with the cliché that the invention of the printed book was a major factor in the expansion of scientific activity in the Early Modern Period, in Europe that is called the scientific revolution. In this case it’s a cliché that is true. I acquired and read Elizabeth Eisenstein’s excellent, classic The printing press as an agent of change (ppb. CUP, 1980), which is a comprehensive introduction to the early world of the printed book. This was followed by the equally classic The Coming of the BookThe Impact of Printing 1450­–1800 by Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin (Verso, 1976), originally published in French as L’Apparition du livre (Editions Albin Michel, 1958), now somewhat dated by still highly informative. 

My interest in book history began to deepen when I began to examine the question, why was Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus published in Nürnberg, leading to the study of all aspects of Renaissance scientific book publishing. 

Over the years I have acquired a shelf full of books on the history of the book that includes, Addrian Johns’ The Nature of the BookPrint and Knowledge in the Making (University of Chicago Press, 1998), with it’s rejection of some of Eisenstein’s key theories. I followed the ensuing debate between the two in various papers. Also on that shelf, amongst others, are Erik Kwakkel’s excellent Books Before Print (ARC Humanities Press, 2018) on medieval manuscripts, Keith Houston’s delightful, and beautifully presented The BookA Cover-to-cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Times (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010).

A slightly more detailed look at these and a couple of other volumes can be found here in an earlier post here, with a link to a full review of Houston’s The Book.

Not included in that earlier post is Tom Moles’ The Secret Life of Books (Elliot & Thompson, 2019), which looks at the functions that books fulfil outside of being reading material, and which I sort of reviewed here. As a footnote to the second footnote on that blog post, I did buy Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Bookshelf (Vintage Books, 1999).

One book on book history that I’m very pleased to have acquired, relatively cheaply, was a second-hand copy of is Margaret Bingham Stillwell’s The Awaking Interest in Science During the First Century of Printing 1450–1550An annotated Checklist of First Editions viewed from the Angle of their Subject Content – Astronomy • Mathematics • Medicine • Natural Science • Physics • Technology, which is a 430 page mine of information and proved very useful in writing my Renaissance Science series of blog posts. 

A fairly recent acquisition is Book Parts edited by Dennis Duncan & Adam Smyth (OUP, 2019), which is what the title says it is, a collection of essays on the individual parts that make up a book – Introductions, Dust Jackets, Frontispieces, Title Pages and eighteen more. It contains a fascinating ten-page essay by Dennis Duncan on the history of indexes. So, it was fairly obvious that when he brought out a whole book on the subject Dennis Duncan IndexA History of theA Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age (W. W. Norton, 2022) that I would acquire a copy. The hardback appeared in February, but economic straights caused me to wait until the paperback appeared in Penguin in October, but I can happily report that it was worth the wait.

Readers of my book reviews may have noticed that I always include a brief comment on the index of the book I’m reviewing. In my opinion, for an academic volume a good index is of prime importance. You have borrowed a massive tome out of the library and are only interested in one of the topics that it contains, you turn immediately to the index to find the relevant passages, to save you having to read the whole thing. A good index is a boon and an important research tool, a bad or non-existent index is a nightmare. I have a paperback of one very important history of science biography in which almost none of the pages listed in the index under a given heading match up with the pagination of the text. It frustrates me every time I turn to it. I suspect that the paperback has a different pagination to the hardback, and nobody thought to redo or adjust the index. Recently l borrowed Marshall Claggett, Archimedes in the Middle Ages, Volume Three: The Fate of the Medieval Archimedes 1300 to 1565, Part III The Medieval Archimedes in the Renaissance, 1450–1566 (The American Philosophical Society, 1978) from the library, only to discover when I got it home that it is 1246 pages long and has no table of contents and no index! For my purposes next to useless!

Indexes and tables of contents are important tools in academic books, which enable the reader to find things without having to read the entire texts. We tend to take them for granted and probably implicitly assumes that they are always there, will always be there, and always have been. The last, of course, is nonsense. The first books were not born with a neat table of contents at the front and a comprehensive index at the back, so where and when did they first appear, how do they differ from each other and how did they evolve into their current forms? These are the questions that Duncan’s volume answers and does so both excellently and highly entertainingly.

It is seldom the case that I read an academic book with a smile on my face, whilst doing so, or break out into laughter at irregular intervals in the text. I did with Duncan’s charming tome. He has a wry sense of humour and a love of bad jokes and is not reluctant to use them. These traits are already obvious in the book’s title, whereby Index, A history of the is a classic index entry, which also, rest assured, appears in the book’s index.  

Duncan doesn’t start with the index but with alphabets, it’s a trivial fact that without an ordered alphabet, one can’t have an ordered index, but not something that one usually thinks about, so ingrained is our ability to rattle off the alphabet at the drop of a hat, that we give no thought to where and when this ordering comes from. 

Having acquired part of the skeleton with which to compile an index we now move onto its birth in the writings of medieval monks or rather its twin parallel births! We also have the birth on the concordance and what differentiates an index from a concordance. 

I said before that we had acquired part of the skeleton with which to compile an index, why only part? What’s missing? What is missing is pagination, without the page number an index entry is a lost term in search of a page. Having launched the alphabetical, paginated index on the world stage, our author know takes it on a romp and at time a wild ride through its evolution down to the present, its changing status its pros and cons, and its uses and abuses. Along the way we meet the table of contents and sort out the similarities and differences between it, the index, and the concordance. A stimulating and fascinating journey, which I can only recommend that you embark on. The price of a ticket is Duncan’s wonderful book. The paperback is one of the best €10.77[2]s I have every spent on a book.

Embellished with the now ubiquitous grayscale illustrations, Duncan’s book is, naturally, equipped with a first-class apparatus, an intriguing table of contents, extensive endnotes, and of course probably the best index that a book ever had. 

You don’t have to be a book historian, or even interested in book history to enjoy this book. It is a truly delightful read for all those who love reading and who have an open and inquiring mind.

[1] I find it a fascinating etymological fact that the English word book comes from the German Buch, which derives from Buche the German for beech tree as German books were originally written on sheets of beech wood.

[2] Prices will of course vary, depending on where you buy a copy


Filed under Book History, Book Reviews

3 responses to “Finding things in books

  1. rtpoe

    Comments on the book, mine:
    …Finding it in the “New Arrivals” section at the library, 13
    …General agreement with The Renaissance Mathematicus, 15
    …Notes on the use of an index as a way to criticize a rival, 22
    …Recommendation to those who would enjoy a fascinating look at something seen as mundane, 27
    …Schickele, no reference to the index in “The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach” by Professor Peter, 28
    Inability to resist making my comments in the style of an index, 29-259
    Making sure I did this in proper alphabetical order, 260

  2. Jim Harrison

    When I was in the publishing business, one of our authors pulled off an index joke in an astronomy textbook. A friend of his nagged him to mention him in the book so in the index on page 472 we read Joseph Smith 472. At least in my experience, which is considerable, scientific humor is largely made up of dad jokes like this.

    • Back in 1973 Robert L Weber edited a book of scientific humour, titled A Random Walk in Science, followed in 1982 by More Random Walks in Science, both remarkably free of ‘dad jokes’. Obviously, since then the standard of scientific humour has slipped drastically.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s