The vanity of writers, if I am myself any example, knows few bounds. If I have a book in hand that is even tangentially about a subject I have written about, I go straightaway to the book’s index to see if I am mentioned. Forty-nine times out of 50 I am not mentioned, but if I am the 50th time the 49 disappointments are all made well. I have not yet caught myself looking for my name in the indexes of books written before I was born—though, who knows, the time may come when I do.

That I am not alone among vain scribblers who haunt indexes I long ago learned from an anecdote, retold by Dennis Duncan in his history of the index, about William F. Buckley, Jr., and Norman Mailer. In the anecdote, which I hope is true, Buckley gave Mailer a copy of his book on his, Buckley’s, 1965 run for mayor of New York City. In the index to the book, alongside Mailer’s name, Buckley, a man not without his own vanity, dabbed in the word “Hi!” We don’t know Mailer’s reaction to this superior gambit, but one likes to think it left him hoist, as I like to say, by his own foulard.

Then there is Googling oneself. To Google oneself—how masturbatory the phrase seems, and mentally perhaps is—certainly is not a good habit. Google is a form of index, if not concordance, or listing of all the appearances of a word in a text, and I use the site often: frequently as an aide-memoire, sometimes in the attempt to discover who is praising or attacking my own various writings. When I do it for the latter reason, I think of myself as Barney Google, whom you will recall as the chap with the goo-goo-googly eyes.

Might Google one day replace, by rendering superfluous, the standard index? Unlikely, Duncan holds, so long as the computer and e-books fail to replace hardcover and paperback books. He writes that the book, “the old-fashioned paper-and-ink book, its pages unreflowable, bound at the spine, has proved an enduring technology in the face of its electronic offspring.” I concur, and second, if not the motion, the wish. “[T]he search bar,” Duncan maintains, “will not replace the subject index any time soon,” adding “[a]s long as we navigate the waters of print, the book index, child of the imagination…will continue to serve as our compass.”

* * *

The history of that compass is Dennis Duncan’s subject in Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. With this book Duncan, who is a lecturer in English at University College London, has added to the growing and fascinatingly rich history of the book. Surely the book, made possible by Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, is one of the three or four decisive progressions in world history, along with the automobile, the airplane, and the personal computer.

With laudable concision Duncan defines the index as “a system adopted as a timesaver, telling us where to look for things.” Taking up its history from the age when books came in the form of scrolls, he notes that the index “did not arrive alone, but is rather the youngest sibling of a whole family of reading tools that arrived in a flurry in the few decades either side of the beginning of the thirteenth century.” Notable members of this family include the table of contents, chapters, pagination (or page numbering), and alphabetical organization. Turns out that none of these now-obviously helpful aids to reading, and thence to learning, was at first welcomed.

Duncan takes us through these advances in a clear, sometimes breezy, style. The numbering of pages in books, for example, did not catch on for decades after its advent, and “[b]y the end of the fifteenth century, it was still only found in about ten per cent of printed books.” As late as the 19th century, not every writer employed chapters. Henry Fielding, in the early 18th century, was one who did, describing chapter breaks as “those little spaces between our chapters [that] may be looked upon as an inn or resting place where [the reader] may stop and take a glass.” Duncan writes that the chapter “is a unit based on our availability as readers. Different books, different genres, calibrate this differently: the punctual half-hour installments of the bedtime story; the short, moreish hits of the thriller or the beach read.” As for the alphabet, the organizing principle of every modern index, we learn from medieval historians quoted in Index that “[t]he Middle Ages did not like alphabetical order, which it considered to be the antithesis of reason.”

* * *

In the 15th and 16th centuries many indexes were printed not at the back but at the front of books. The index was then considered a useful entering point for a book. This arrangement made many serious writers skeptical of the index itself. Erasmus, Duncan tells us, suspected that many people read only the indexes of books. Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope felt much the same, Swift noting, in Gulliver’s Travels, that in place of reading an entire book many “get a thorough Insight into the Index, by which the whole Book is governed and turned, like Fishes by the Tail.”

Duncan’s history of the index features a number of men unlikely to be known even to the very bookish. The first of these are two 13th-century figures, Robert Grosseteste, a poet who was also chancellor of Oxford and Bishop of Lincoln, and Hugh St. Cher, a Dominican friar living in Paris. The two men did not know each other, but served, in Duncan’s words, as “two midwives who will deliver the index into the world—simultaneously, independently—in or around the year 1230.” Their motive was chiefly to streamline the complexities of reading for the growing numbers of the literate in universities, monasteries, and elsewhere. The elaborate indexes of these men were modified over the centuries and became the name and subject indexes of modern days.

* * *

In skilled hands an index entry can serve as a reprise, a résumé, an account of a person’s life. Virginia Woolf, when she and her husband began the Hogarth Press, was assigned the composition of the index for the memoir of an actress named Viola Tree that the firm was publishing. Duncan quotes her index entry that he describes as “a volley of subheadings that tell her [Ms. Tree’s] life story in miniature”:

Tree, Viola, leaves stage, 11; studies music, 12; engaged to A. P., 13; goes to Milan, 15; at Milan, 18 ff; sings to Ricordi, 23; life at Milan, 27 ff; in her own house at Milan, 53-90; visit to Strauss, 115 ff; returns to England, 138; summer in England, 159; returns to Italy, 181; Christmas in England, 224; returns to Italy, 233; engagement to A. P. announced, 257; marriage, 290.

What no one could have imagined is the use of the index as a weapon of criticism—snarky criticism, in fact. Duncan provides a number of examples. He spends several pages on a 17th-century controversy between two scholars, Charles Boyle and Richard Bentley, over Bentley’s Dissertation on the Epistles of Phalaris. Boyle accused Bentley, in Duncan’s words, of being “a drudge or an automaton, competent only at looking things up.” Soon a mischievous literary figure named William King joined the melee, supplying an index with the title “A Short Account of Dr. Bentley, By Way of Index,” with entries that included:

His egregious dullness, p. 74, 106, 119, 135, 136, 137, 241

His Pedantry, from p. 93 to 99, 144, 216

His Appeal to Foreigners, p. 13, 14, 15

His familiar acquaintance with Books that he never saw, p. 76, 98, 115, 232

Joseph Addison was victim to a similar attack by index, accused in a satirical index of tautology, poor grammar, sympathy for Catholics, and banality. Later, in the 19th century, in an anecdote told by Harold Macmillan, whose family origins were in publishing (the house of Macmillan), the historian Thomas Macaulay, aware that putting together an index can be a subjective and hence a political act, exclaimed, “Let no damned Tory index my History!” Duncan notes: “The weaponized index—an invention of High Tory, High Church men of Christ Church—has become common property, and anyone, on any side, can use it.”

* * *

Which made me think about returning to the indexes of some of my own books, which until coming upon Duncan’s book I have never examined with any care. At lunch not long ago, a friend said to me, “Everyone loves your writing.” Pause. “Except those who hate it.” What if one of the latter had been assigned to do the index to one of my books? Might I find there, under Epstein, Joseph: pomposity, 23; misogyny, 42; overestimates charm, 87; rumors of plagiarism, 145-46; too clever by half, 234; not clever enough by three-quarters, 321.

A well-made index can of course be a great aid. An ill-made index—one, for example, that directs you to a reference on page 338 that on inspection isn’t there—can be maddening. A fine index can also give a book a more substantial feel. The absence of an index in some books can itself be disappointing. Early in life we are told not to judge a book by its cover. But can we not judge a book by its index? Can a book that has Aquinas, St. Thomas; Augustine, Saint; Beerbohm, Max; and Berlin, Isaiah on the first page of its index be all that bad? Can one that has Carlson, Tucker; Lemon, Don; Ingraham, Laura; Blitzer, Wolf scattered through its pages be much good?

Such is Duncan’s extensive knowledge of the index, its history and its oddities, that he can find aesthetic pleasure from certain instances of elegant indexes. He quotes Leigh Hunt on the early indexes of the Spectator and Tatler, comparing them to “jolly fellows bringing burgundy out of a cellar…. Let anyone read [them]…and then call an index a dry thing if he can.” Duncan cites other indexes that approach the aphoristic in their references.

Complete, even exhaustive though Duncan’s account of the index seems, it leaves out one of the great, it is not going too far to say monstrous, indexes of the past century, the Syntopicon devised by Mortimer Adler and his staff to accompany the publication of The Great Books of the Western World (1952). An index to the 443 works composed by 76 authors, the Syntopicon contains 163,000 page references to the authors of the The Great Books, all organized around what Adler and Co. determined are the world’s 102 great ideas. “What the Corpus Juris does for the legal profession,” Adler remarked around the time of its publication, “the Syntopicon will do for everyone.” Adler compared his Syntopicon to “a unified reference library in the realm of thought and opinion.” Yet so massive is this index that, in the words of Dwight Macdonald, “one needs the patience of Job and the leisure of Sardanapalus to plow through the plethora of references. Those under Science, which take up twelve and a half pages, begin with four lines of references to Plato, which took me an hour to look up and read.” An indexer in philosopher’s clothing, Mortimer Adler, again in Macdonald’s words, “aspires to be the great codifier and systematizer of Western culture, to write its Code Napoleon.” He didn’t make it.

Duncan takes up fiction that has used the index as a device within novels and stories, among them works by Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino. He cites a J.G. Ballard story with the title “The Index,” a story told in the form of an index, from which “the reader must piece together a narrative using only keywords, brief subheadings, and the sense of chronology that the page numbers provide.” In her novel Orlando: A Biography (1928), Virginia Woolf appended a false index to give the novel a more realistic aspect of what Duncan calls “cross-dressing.”

Yet fiction itself has never been successfully indexed. Duncan reports that Samuel Johnson suggested to Samuel Richardson that he supply an index to his more than 2,000-page novel Clarissa (1748), an index that turned out to be 85 pages long and not especially useful. Alexander Pope attempted an index for his translation of the Iliad. In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Holmes frequently refers to a personal index he keeps on subjects and people. Lewis Carroll supplied an index for Sylvie and Bruno (1889-93), his last, less than successful novel. Fiction, with its emphasis on storytelling, needs no indexes. John Updike, we learn from Duncan, referred to biography as “just novels with indexes.”

* * *

Easy to forget that indexes, those often deadpan, usually impersonal-seeming constructions, are made by human beings. The work of indexing calls for a meticulousness that verges on, perhaps goes beyond, drudgery. Just who does all the world’s indexing? Increasingly, and now Duncan notes overwhelmingly, indexers are women. He makes a strong case for indexers being the unknown soldiers of publishing. “The professional indexer,” he writes, “learned, vigilant, goes before us, levelling mountains and beating paths so that we, time-poor students at the fingerpost, can arrive swiftly but unruffled at the passage—the quotation, the datum, the knowledge—we need.” He hopes, he tells us, that “this book may serve as a wreath laid at the tomb of these unknown readers.”

In his acknowledgments Duncan thanks his agents “for their belief—astonishing to me—that a history of indexes might be of interest to more than a handful of academics.” Yet through his impressive knowledge and lively prose style, he, Dennis Duncan, has made it so. The only defect I found in his book, which I hope may one day be corrected in a later edition or its paperback version, is the absence of my own name from its index.