Index, a History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age

Written by Dennis Duncan

From W. W. Norton & Company:

A New York Times Editors’ Choice Book
Named a Most Anticipated Book of 2022 by Literary Hub and Goodreads

A playful history of the humble index and its outsized effect on our reading lives.

Most of us give little thought to the back of the book―it’s just where you go to look things up. But as Dennis Duncan reveals in this delightful and witty history, hiding in plain sight is an unlikely realm of ambition and obsession, sparring and politicking, pleasure and play. In the pages of the index, we might find Butchers, to be avoided, or Cows that sh-te Fire, or even catch Calvin in his chamber with a Nonne. Here, for the first time, is the secret world of the index: an unsung but extraordinary everyday tool, with an illustrious but little-known past.

Charting its curious path from the monasteries and universities of thirteenth-century Europe to Silicon Valley in the twenty-first, Duncan uncovers how it has saved heretics from the stake, kept politicians from high office, and made us all into the readers we are today. We follow it through German print shops and Enlightenment coffee houses, novelists’ living rooms and university laboratories, encountering emperors and popes, philosophers and prime ministers, poets, librarians and―of course―indexers along the way. Revealing its vast role in our evolving literary and intellectual culture, Duncan shows that, for all our anxieties about the Age of Search, we are all index-rakers at heart―and we have been for eight hundred years.

“Smart, playful….Duncan has written such a generous book, attentive to the varieties of the reading experience.”
― Jennifer Szalai, New York Times

“Erudite, eminently readable and wittily titled…[U]shers the reader smoothly, even soothingly, along a fascinating, immensely pleasurable journey through previously uncharted terrain.”
― Margalit Fox, New York Times Book Review

“An adventure, and ‘bookish’ in the most appealing sense…From ancient Egypt to Silicon Valley, Duncan is an ideal tour guide: witty, engaging, knowledgeable and a fount of diverting anecdotes.”
― Steven Moore, Washington Post

“Gracefully learned, often witty and enlightening.”
― Ben Yagoda, Wall Street Journal

“Engaging…Duncan draws rich parallels to anxieties surrounding our own ‘age of search’ and makes an impassioned case for the continued relevance of the human-crafted index.”
― The New Yorker

“Lively….Duncan’s enthusiasms are contagious.”
― Alexandra Horowitz, Atlantic