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A Place For Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order

av Judith Flanders

MedlemmarRecensionerPopularitetGenomsnittligt betygOmnämnanden
1465143,435 (3.5)4
  1. 00
    The Book on the Bookshelf av Henry Petroski (nessreader)
    nessreader: Both flanders + petroski write about the historical development and practicalities of arrangement of libraries.
  2. 00
    Just My Type: A Book About Fonts av Simon Garfield (nessreader)
    nessreader: Two entertaining books about letters for the general public, garfield on fonts and flanders on alphabetical order.
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This is a very interesting book for a narrow audience - particularly librarians. It is not just about the origin of alphabetical order in things like encyclopedias, card catalogues, scientific manuals etc. The book goes back to ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt up to recent times. Also covered are what people wrote on and wrote with along with the people who assembled and stored information over the decades. Luckily I am into historical trivia and liked it. Those who are not will want to scream. Also, I loved that I have a personal library larger than any in the world during the 1300's. ( )
3 rösta muddyboy | Oct 3, 2020 |
A perfectly serviceable historical account of how we came to organize (many) things alphabetically. Much of the story will be familiar to those who have read Ann Blair, Tom Mullaney, and others, but Flanders does a good job of synthesizing her sources. ( )
  JBD1 | Sep 20, 2020 |
I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I was so excited about this book when I saw that it was available -- I have been working in bookstores and libraries since I was a teenager, so classification and organization of information is a big deal to me. There's really nothing that relaxes me more than putting a list in order. I was primed to love this book, but I merely liked it. Most of the book discusses what happened in the ancient world, Middle Ages, and the era right after movable type and printing presses came into existence. (95% dead white men, in other words.) The author's style is academic, and a full 30% of the page count was notes and bibliography. This book would be very useful for someone who is writing a paper for library school. I make it sound like it's not interesting, but I learned so much. (For example, Melvil Dewey was a creep to a criminal degree!) I think this book is probably much better when it's not the advance copy, too, because in the digital ARC, there is no delineation between notes and text boxes vs. the main body of the text, so it got very confusing. I think there are more illustrations in the published book, too. This would make a perfect gift for someone who loves history, research, and archives. ( )
1 rösta HeatherMoss | Sep 18, 2020 |
The latest shibboleth of western imperialism to come under the magnifying glass is the alphabet. We in the West think of it as standard and intuitive, its powers innate, and its services universal. Judith Flanders is here to remind us it has a long tortured history to get to this hallowed status. And by the way, there are all kinds of societies that don’t use our alphabet. In A Place for Everything, she has done her usual yeoman’s job of research, and produced a book that probes in all kinds of directions for fascinating developments, accomplishments, and trivia. It’s another gem from the author of Inside The Victorian Home, a highly appreciated and exhaustive feat, examining life for the emerging middle class in the 1800s. This one reaches even farther.

In the beginning, there was no need for alphabetizing anything, or even for an alphabet. There was not much knowledge to impart, no overwhelming commerce to track, no need for government processes. As time went on and history stacked up, oral stories became too big to handle. No one could carry everything just in their heads.

Different societies dealt with it in different ways. Writing developed, but mostly just in religious quarters, where the stories and their interpretations were the lifeblood. Most of the book seems to dwell on monks and priests, as they made all the discoveries and innovations. They formed the vast majority of those who could even read at all until 500 years ago. Even the scientists were monks and ministers.

Knowledge grew to the point where it needed to be classified in order to be retrievable. Everyone had their own ideas of how to achieve this. For example, the Book of Interpretation of Hebrew Names listed them in the order they appeared in the bible. Concordances, attempts to index everything in the bible for faster research, were a major source for innovations, through trial and error and fashion.

Should a phrase be tagged by its first word (I, The, An, One -for example) or by the central noun or verb? For a very long time, things were classified by their category in a hierarchy, from the top down. Books were written with heavenly hierarchy as their organizing spine. It always began with God, followed by angels, the king, lords, patrons, and so on down the line. Finding what you actually came for was, shall we say, challenging.

In his The Analytical Language of John Wilkins (a 17th century writer), Jorge Luis Borges cited a (probably imaginary)Chinese encyclopedia which classified all animals in the following categories: “a) those that belong to the Emperor, b) embalmed ones, c) those that are trained, d) suckling pigs, e) mermaids, f) fabulous ones, g) stray dogs, h) those that are included in this classification, i) those that tremble as if they were mad, j) innumerable ones, k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, l) others, m) those that have just broken a flower vase, n) those that resemble flies from a distance.” Absurd, but very close to the truth, as Flanders repeatedly discovered in her research. Consistency, let alone science, had yet to leave their marks.

As alphabets developed, some writers used them as their basis of organization, but it was centuries before it became common and acceptable, let alone mandatory. For one thing, the lack of people able to read or write meant that spelling was up to the writer. There were no rules to follow, and the variations made looking for a fact all the more difficult. It was always a case of what made the most sense – to the writer. If you didn’t think the way he did, you were out of luck and in for a hard slog.

Things picked up in the 11th and 12th centuries. Movable type first appeared in Europe in the 11th century. (It had been used China since the 200s.) 1180 was the first time the bible was broken into chapters.

Libraries of a sort began to appear. Religious orders could (if allowed) accumulate books, maybe dozens. They were kept in cupboards. You found them by determining which cupboard they were assigned. When they no longer fit in cupboards, they populated shelves. They would be identified by some more-or-less permanent marker, like a bust of someone on the end of the shelf. For centuries, this was the system the English used everywhere. Deeds were written up referencing a certain oak tree, for example. As English oaks could live for thousands of years, this was actually decent thinking, as long as no one cut it down.

By the 14th century, paper was cheaper than parchment, which led to books of blank sheets that people wrote in themselves. For a long time, printed documents were restricted to a small area of the page, so that others could comment, criticize, attempt to classify, and add their own knowledge to the text. Right beside it.

During the century, the price of paper dropped 75% as the new technology spread and volume production flooded the market. This had the unfortunate result we call paperwork. Government suddenly was done by document rather than command. Forms came into existence, bureaucrats came into being, and the need to make sense of all the paper became everyone’s problem. Knowledge became so voluminous that everything written cried out to be indexed. This led to inventions like desks, filing cabinets, copy systems, index cards and files, none of which was even imaginable before.

Wax-covered tablets became the mobiles of their day. People could carve out notes on them, close them to protect the writing, and erase them when they had dealt with the matter. Book presses allowed copies to be made by squeezing the page and the book so hard the ink bled onto a flimsy sheet placed over it. And even without these advances, copies had to be made of all outbound correspondence, as proof in case of dispute.

Alphabetizing itself evolved in fits and starts. The inconsistencies of spelling held it back, but it also took a while for writers to go to the second level, to alphabetize by the first two letters (let alone three or four) of the first word or the topic word. School grades started a migration to the alphabet only in the mid 1800s, with an F for Failure replacing E (confusable with Excellent) only decades later. Now of course, everything is alphabetized, from seating sections to debt ratings. AAA automatically implies excellence. ABC automatically means a high placement on the list.

And yet, the whole system is completely arbitrary. A does not have to be the first letter of the alphabet, any more than QWERTY is the natural order. And many were (and probably continue to be) against it. Author Samuel Taylor Coleridge “stormed” against alphabetizing everything. He was a “vehement opponent”, calling it “nothing more than a huge unconnected miscellany…in an arrangement determined by the accident of initial letters.”

Back in the cultural dilemma, it is true that many Middle Eastern alphabets begin with A, be it aleph or alpha or something similar. But then they diverge right away. The hubris of our alphabet was brought into focus during the Olympics, a global event, where countries parade in and out of the main stadium in alphabetical order. This came to a screeching halt when Korea hosted them, soon followed by China. Their specified orders confused the hell out of television hosts, never knowing who was next, and fearing their own country would be called to enter during a commercial break. Flanders has noted it all.

Even the origins of words has been transformed by the advent of alphabetizing everything. Just one example from the book is the word “file”, which did not exist before in this meaning. The word comes from the Latin for thread or string. Think filament. The modern usage comes from the practice of punching a hole in pieces of paper and threading string or even just thread through them to keep them together in one place. They could then be hung on the wall, since filing cabinets were still hundreds of years off in the future, but nails were readily available. As you read A Place for Everything, you will notice all kinds of familiar words and names that have shaped this new era and this new obsession with organizing everything.

And let there be no doubt on that score. We not only catalog all the books in libraries (though Flanders says investigations have shown 10% miss out are therefore never accessed), but even libraries themselves are catalogued. WorldCat has collected and massaged the data of 72,000 libraries around the world. This is obviously way beyond the capability of the index card. It created the need for databases, where files are just icons and all the data is in one huge memory drive, instantly and infinitel searchable. We have come full circle, where any data can be retrieved, and nothing has to be separated out except by our desire for it. But perhaps fortunately, Flanders doesn’t go there.

Unusually, the book has not one but two systems of endnotes, at the end of every chapter as well at the back of the book. This keeps the reader bouncing. The chapter ones are more like margin notes, with trivia or impact that doesn’t really belong in the paragraph. The back of the book notes are the more standard citations and references. Same goes for images; there are two collections. Twenty-one images are scattered throughout, but there is also a collection of 11 images in an insert. It’s a very busy book.

And for all that, the book is arranged chronologically.

David Wineberg ( )
3 rösta DavidWineberg | Aug 1, 2020 |
I was directed to this book after hearing an interview of the author, Judith Flanders, by Philip Adams, on Late Night Live, Radio National ABC Australia.
The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting but it was fascinating and enjoyable anyway. I expected more on development of the alphabet.
It is the story of how alphabetical order slowly won favour as the preferred way of ordering and indexing down through the ages.
It gives an insight into how long it took for alphabetical order to be adopted and all the hierarchical schemes of ordering that have been used down the ages.
I have always been puzzled by the Dewey library cataloguing system. Judith Flanders gives a clear description of its origin as a throwback to Baconian hierarchies and an outline of its weaknesses.
Some of the interesting points I noted follow.

p11> [footnote] in English 'w' is pronounced 'double u', a reminder that the written letter is made up of two 'u's joined together.
p37> (In Medieval times) ... it was impossible to understand the world without understanding God’s plan for it, and any well-constructed encyclopaedia had to explain the world by reflecting God's plan in its organisational structure, as well as the information it contained. ... Alphabetical order looked like resistance, even rebellion, against the order of divine creation.
p43> [footnote] by the 12th and 13th centuries English, French and Latin all co-existed in the British Isles, the choice of language depending on whether those involved were speaking, reading or writing, or to whom they were speaking or writing. … One scholar has noted that the king might make a pronouncement in French, which could be read aloud to the people in English, before being written down in Latin.
p117> (14th century, the advent of printing) As a modern scholar of the history of writing said: 'Writing makes civilization possible. Printing make science possible. Indexing makes them [both] assessable.'
p158> The word 'file' comes from the Latin filum, meaning string. Documents dealing with a single subject were quite literally strung together, tied with a needle and twine …
p166> in the reign of Maximilian I (1459-1519), governing became an act of documentation, not of Imperial presence or spoken decrees. ... the state had become a bureaucracy, its memory made out of paper.
p171> [footnote] French was the language of law from 1066, for 3 hundred years ... many words originate from then: jury (have sworn, jure, an oath; on parole (person given his word, or parole).
p243> [footnote] (Dewey system) While all systems are inevitably biased, making more space for some elements and overlooking others, Dewey's was particularly so, and has proved troublesome in the modern world. Being based on Baconian hierarchies, it is predisposed to an Anglocentric worldview. More, it is almost laughably Christian-centric: religion, allocated the 200s in Dewey's system, sees 200–289 devoted to Christianity, while all of Islam is contained in just 297. Women, meanwhile, are patronizingly categorized alongside etiquette. …
255> Roget's Thesaurus is perhaps the most frequently consulted analphabetic reference book in English. Based on an 18th century view of the Natural History classification system, it's layout is all ordered by phyla, classes, orders and families – a system that is impenetrable to the great majority, if not to all, of its modern day users.
( )
  GeoffSC | Jul 25, 2020 |
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