Wednesday 20 July 2022

My Month of Non-Fiction Books (About Parts of Books)

 In June I focused my reading on non-fiction books about aspects of the book (and also Gilbert White’s biography and book). Three of the books dealt with particular aspects of organisation within books, one about alphabetical order, another about indexes and another about footnotes. 

A Place for Everything by Judith Flanders is a history of alphabetical order.

What I found most interesting was how the slow adoption of alphabet order showed shifts in perspective. The early literate people in the Christian world were clergy, who believed in ‘the word’. The word ‘Deus’ wasn’t just a word meaning God but was a linguistic representation of God, so putting it in an alphabetical list where it comes after ‘Angels’ simply didn’t make sense, everyone knows God comes first. There needed to be a shift into viewing the words as simply words, consisting of letters that can be ordered. This shift of conception was aided by the technology of the printing press, whereas a word would be scribed, it was now constructed by moveable type.

Another interesting element was the development in specialised equipment that aids alphabetical ordering. You’d be surprised how interesting and complex the development of the card index or the filing cabinet are, not to mention the invention of the ring binder and shortly after, the hole punch. (Also as a complete aside, the Bodleian used to use the Vatican’s prohibited book list as a shopping list, knowing it’d turn up spicy stuff).

Where I disagree with the book is its insistence that alphabetical ordering is the most modern and best way of ordering information. It scorns mediaeval libraries arranged by topic and authoritative hierarchy (from Bible, to Church founders to later interpretation) despite the fact those libraries had, at most, fifty books and were arranged by the principals important to the library users. My own collection of books, far in excess of fifty, is organised by a complicated system of genre, chronology and my own personal intention for the books, whether I use them for reference, plan to read them soon, have read them recently &c. While alphabetical order is a useful way to organise data, it isn’t the only way and not necessarily the best way for every purpose. The book itself is not arranged alphabetically but chronologically with a thin veneer of the alphabet on top with chapters, A B C D E F G H I Y. Some of the alphabet is missed out there.

Index, a History of the, by Dennis Duncan is a book with a near perfect title. it covers many of Everything in its Place, a book about alphabetical order, it does so in a more conversational style. 

Both books talk about Grosseteste, the originator of the first (alphabetically ordered) index, but Duncan gives more of a biography and spends more time setting him in context beforehand. This means that the book, while more digressive than the alphabetical order one, is a more entertaining read.

There’s a pleasure in the bookish geekdom displayed in this book; whether that’s laughing at a monk called Hugh of Croydon, or experiencing ‘Stendhal syndrome’ (the awe of standing near something historic) from a book containing the first printed page number, it revels in it’s nerdiness. There were many fun details, like the manuscript perfectly copied, index and all, but the index doesn’t work because the paper size was different and none of the numbers led to the right page. Even funnier, some annoyed reader came along later, scraped the old numbers off and added new ones on. It also explains his awe at printed page numbers, an index wouldn’t really work until books were more standardised.

For an eighteenth-century nut, there were a lot of pleasures. There was a quote from the Grub St Journal, the century’s equivalent to Private Eye magazine. There was the introduction of indexes designed to mock a book, drawing attention to its sillier aspects, such as the one of the Transactions of the Royal Society which described the psychedelic after-effects of feeding his family ‘poppy pye’. There’s the wonderful old hack, Oldmixon, who was paid to index a history and used his position to undercut all the arguments in the history. There was also John Gay, who used the index in his poem Trivia to add jokes and clarifications, an idea that never really took off. Then there was the story about how Richardson (the dweeb), rather than writing a fourth novel, indexed the moral lessons in his other three, a work that he thought was greater than the novels himself. It was also revealed that Johnson, when quoting Richardson in his dictionary used the index rather than the novels themselves, judging by discrepancies between quotes in index and novel. Finally, there was the nineteenth century writer, Macauley, who made an index of all the tears in Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling. The index is described in this book as ‘more of a drinking game’ than an actual index but it has been reproduced in every copy since.

There’s a running theme in the book about the fears people had about indexes, that they were a cheater’s way to the knowledge of a book, that they’d make people stupider, that people would read indexes rather than the book itself. This arguments are now being used about computer search engines (which work more as a superfast concordance than an index itself) but it was interesting to see how such fears haven’t died.

The Devil’s Details by Chuck Zerby was the most entertaining of the books about the features of books I have read this month, though it’s probably the scantiest in information. Zerby is a partisan in favour of footnotes and he charts and celebrates their use while going off on various entertaining tangents.

It makes sense the book frequently digresses, as the author sees the pleasure and purpose of footnotes to be a pleasing interruption to a text. He gives a number of examples, including one where a heavy philosophical subject is enlivened by a metaphor in a footnote, he also talks about a man called Marcus who was stung to death by bees. Such a book looks pretty peculiar in my notes, there’s a cluster of stuff about a man called Bentley, who showed up in a satirical index war in Dennis Duncan’s Index, a history of the, in my notes Bentley is calling a colleague ‘an old shoe’ and shooting bullets into the study of another - I’m not sure if he was a big player in the actual footnote story though or just a source of funny stories in another footnote. (Another figure in both the index and footnote books is Norman Mailer, who is the victim of an index-based prank in one book and feeds a horse vodka in this one).

A large part of the book dramatises the invention of the first footnote, which is found in The Book of Job in the Bishop’s Bible of 1568, though he says (in a footnote) that he’ll give a slap-up meal to anyone who finds an earlier one, and include them in a footnote in a new edition. When I say it dramatises the invention, it goes whole hog. Zerby has read one book about criminal life in Elizabethan London and a few about printer’s houses and goes full reconstruction - then it includes a footnote to explain how some historical writers hate all the dramatising stuff but it’s his book and he wanted to do it. Essentially, footnotes weren’t useful in days of marginalia but now they’re a tidy way of adding extra details.

He talks about three heroes of the footnote; Bayle, who uses them as an ‘underworld’ to place the really interesting stuff, Gibbon, who made footnotes respectable but still digressive and Ranke, who made them boring citations and little more.

This author is very opinionated about his footnotes. They should add to the text, put different spins on it and give authority - they aren’t merely for citations. Even poems can be improved with them, as Aphra Behn did, using a footnote to contextualise a religious seeming poem into one about syphilis. Alexander Pope, however, used his footnotes wrong, using them to browbeat the text and make footnotes look bad. 

He is very passionate.

Don’t even get him started on modern publishing’s preference for endnotes.

In some ways this book reminded me of the ‘angry x reviewer’ characters on youtube a few years ago, an exaggerated take on the real writer and his fondness for footnotes, though maybe he is really like this. Who knows?

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