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THIS ALL STARTED with the London Review of Books, September 23, 2021. It contained Anthony Grafton’s “Fake It Till You Make It,” a review of Dennis Duncan’s aptly named Index, A History Of The.
Its cover and subtitle, “A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age,” suggest that Duncan’s book is anything but a dusty bit of academe. And Grafton’s review corroborates this: For example, he shares the tale when “William F. Buckley sent Norman Mailer a copy of his book The Unmaking of a Mayor and wrote ‘Hi!’ in the index next to Mailer’s name.”
Purpose of an Index: Grafton writes, “The index took what was nearly its definitive shape in the manuscript world of the 14th and 15th centuries. A table of contents could offer useful guidance to the structure of a work written on one or more scrolls, but there was no simple way to list and direct traffic to particular passages within them.”
This, of course, is one purpose of an index: to corrolate passages arranged alphabetically with their appearances in the work. However, as Grafton notes, “By the time everyone knew what an index was and how it worked, they also knew that it could serve many purposes for which it had never been intended.”
Other purposes arose, delightfully, in the LRB’s Letters column, November 18, 2021. Here are several.
Trial Evidence. William Prynne was a Puritan, whose book Histriomastix: The Player’s Scourge, or Actor’s Tragedy was, as its title suggested, a diatribe against the theater of his day.
As described by Wikipedia, Prynne’s book led to charges against him of seditious libel: “At Prynne’s trial, some fifty separate and allegedly seditious excerpts from the book were quoted; but the one that has attracted most attention from subsequent critics is Prynne’s attack on women actors as ‘notorious whores.’ “
His ranting, an LRB reader notes, “might have escaped the notice of the attorney general had Prynne not supplied all the incriminating material in a convenient list. The index to Histriomastix includes “Devils, inventors and fomenters of stage plays” and “Kings, infamous for them to act or frequent playes.” And, of course, that assessment of women in theater.
Didn’t he wish.
Scholarly Rivalries. Another LRB reader writes, “One troublesome use of indexes is their occasional weaponization in academic feuds. A masterpiece is provided by the Victorian medievalist J.H. Rounds, whose Feudal England (1895) was in large part a sustained and vitriolic attack on his fellow medievalist E.A. Freeman. The entry devoted to ‘Freeman, Professor” is by far the longest in the index….”
Citations include “his contemptuous criticism,” “his pedantry,” “his Doomesday errors and confusion,” and “misconstrues his Latin.”
“And all this,” the LRB reader writes, “when Freeman had died in 1892.”
An Entry Awaiting its Time. “For more than forty years,” another LRB readers confesses, “I have been hoping for an opportunity to make the following index entry better known. It is from the Monthly Review, January-April 1802: ‘Interment, premature, of human bodies apparently dead, laudable institution for the prevention of, in Germany, 42.’ ”
A Daughter’s Assessment. Another LRB letter writer cites an author assembling a book’s index as a family affair, albeit something of a forced one: The author would call out items for his wife and three children, who were honor-bound to transcribe these onto index cards later to be alphabetized.
One daughter sneaked in the following: “birds, for the” and listed pages 1–1453, the entire tome. The father insisted that the entry be removed from later editions.
I’m with the daughter on this one. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021