A New York Times Notable Book and Editors' Choice Book
A TIME, Washington Post, and New Yorker Best Book of 2022
A Book Marks Best Reviewed Book of 2022
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.
About the Author
Dennis Duncan is a lecturer in English at University College London. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books, and he is the coeditor of Book Parts. He lives in London.
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
Entertaining and erudite…In an unexpectedly high-spirited book on indexes, the fun continues to the very last page. — Barbara Spindel - Christian Science Monitor
A learned and playful study, by British academic Dennis Duncan, of a textual machinery so successful it’s become almost invisible. — Brian Dillon - 4Columns
A decidedly fun history…Dennis Duncan’s enthusiasm for the subject matter shines through the many witticisms and illustrations as he shows how something so seemingly small has been so vital to western literature. — Erica Ezeifedi - BookRiot
Dennis Duncan’s history—from Socrates to software—along with Paula Clarke Bain’s peerless index, is witty and personable throughout, and also serves as a sneak attack on the search engine. It’s safe to say that you will never take an index for granted again. — Mary Norris, author of Between You & Me and Greek to Me
Enlightening and entertaining…Duncan mixes humor and scholarship to brilliant effect in this accessible deep dive. — Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Sparkles with geeky wit and shines with an infectious enthusiasm…Always erudite, frequently funny, and often surprising—a treat for lovers of the book qua book. — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Backmatter has never enjoyed such a spotlight; sure to amuse bibliophiles and casual readers alike. — Library Journal (starred review)
[A] witty and wide-ranging study…[Duncan] is adventurous as well, often writing as if academic research were as revved-up as a Formula One race. — Peter Conrad - The Guardian
A seemingly niche and esoteric subject, the index becomes, in Duncan’s hands, a minor miracle. Index, A History of the is not only about books…but about the nature of reading and about how we understand, categorize and engage with the world.
— Kate Wiles, History Today
As Dennis Duncan’s charming book shows, though today they suggest fusty libraries, indexes were once a novelty. — The Economist
Duncan proves an amiable companion on what his subtitle aptly refers to as a ‘bookish adventure’…[U]seful as an introduction to book history in general as well as indexes in particular. — James Waddell - Times Literary Supplement
Dennis Duncan's fascinating study of the origins of the index offers subversion, whimsy—and hope. — Houman Barekat - Financial Times
Dennis Duncan gives us not only a history of the index, but an essay on human folly…[A] terrifically rewarding and also timely book. — Frances Wilson, The Oldie
Masterful…[B]oth an entertaining and edifying journey through index-history and a spirited defense of the index (and indexers) in the technological age. — Michael Delgado - Prospect Magazine
Entrancing.… Every page has things I didn’t know, or hardly realized I knew from a lifetime of looking things up. Master the use of the index and you have access to all knowledge.” — Christopher de Hamel, author of Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts
Dennis Duncan has done a great service to all bibliophiles by writing this scholarly, witty, and affectionate history. By rights ‘Books, love of’ ought to have a page-long entry in the index.
— Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves
What a surprise to discover that the plain and humble index has such an intricate and rollicking history! Dennis Duncan gives us a learned grand tour from ancient times to the almost present in the design and uses—and cunning abuses—of what is still the most sophisticated search tool ever devised. Instruction, passim! Entertainment, idem!
— David Bellos, author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?