In this episode of High Theory, Dennis Duncan tells us about the history of the index. At it’s simplest, an index is a table with columns that allow you to match sets of terms, most often topics and page numbers. Google is an index, as was the first bible concordance, completed in 1230 under the direction of a French Dominican scholar named Hugo de Saint-Cher.
In the episode, Dennis quotes a line from Alexander Pope’s Dunciad:
How index-learning turns no student pale,
Yet holds the eel of science by the tail
(book 1, lines 279-80)
He also references Nicholas Carr’s article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (The Atlantic, July/Aug 2008), and the book based upon it, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, 2011), both of which make an argument against shallow reading that Dennis argues goes all the way back to medieval critiques of the index. In the longer version of our conversation, we talked about Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler.
Dennis Duncan is a scholar of book history, translation, and avant-garde literature at the University College London. His book about the history of the index, Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age was published in the US by Norton in 2022. The book includes two indices, once made by indexing software, and the other by Paula Clarke Bain.
This week’s image is a portrait of Hugo de Saint-Cher, made by Tommaso da Modena. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. Full citation: Hugues de Saint-Cher († 1263), bibliste et théologien, Paris, Centre d’études du Saulchoir, Actes du colloque 13-15 mars 2000, Brepols, coll. « Bibliothèque d’histoire culturelle du Moyen Âge », n°1, Turnhout, 2004, 524 p., ISBN : 2-503-51721-8