There was a time centuries ago when artists, politicians and intellectuals found a unique place where they could skirmish with one another. It wasn’t a local dueling ground, and it didn’t necessarily involve writing barbed satires in which unflattering caricatures of their rivals were made to look foolish. (Though it certainly could have.) Instead, the unlikely site of battles of wills could be found in the indexes of weighty tomes.
Writing at Slate, Dennis Duncan explored this bizarre but entertaining period in history. Duncan cites the 19th century politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, who made a keen observation about the way many sprawling works of history were read. As Duncan phrases it, “for the most part they read them from the back, jumping in via the index, consulting the work for the sections they need. If this is the case, then the actions of a rogue or partisan indexer matter.”
Among the examples Duncan cites is a rivalry between two rival authors working in the late 17th century, Charles Boyle and Richard Bentley. The two were at odds over a collection of ancient letters that Boyle had translated, which Bentley doubted the authenticity of.
This, in turn, led to various literary attacks between the two men — including one section in which Boyle and his associates criticized Bentley through an index of a critique of his work. What that means in practice is that it contained entries focusing on Bentley like “His egregious dulness, p. 74, 106, 119, 135, 136, 137, 241”.
As highly intellectual snark goes, it’s hard to beat. And if Duncan’s forays into the stranger aspects of indexing strike your fancy, there’s a whole other book where that came from.
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