Of Back-of-the-Book Indexes and Other Cultural Catastrophes

Someone recently referred to Wikipedia as the “end of scholarship.” I can’t remember who said it, and I can’t turn it up on Google or even on Wikipedia itself, which I guess means it might as well never have been said. But I’m sure I read it somewhere. And I’m not surprised at the sentiment. It’s always the “end of” something vital to humanity, and we are always teetering on the edge of a new Dark Ages. (Never mind that there was never really an old Dark Ages.)

We hear about the end of literature and the end of classical music and the end of all manner of things. The modest and self-effacing Harold Bloom even called slam poetry “the death of art.” Of course, Bloom has said that just about everything fundamental to human culture, including Rock and Roll, is also dead. (I, too, am not altogether sure that civilization can survive the recent passing of Levon Helm.)

None of this doomsaying is new to our postmodern, digital age. Everything good has been ending for a long time. It’s worth nothing that reading ended way back in the seventeenth century. To be specific, nobody has actually read books for more than 300 years. Reading was killed off when indexes started appearing in the backs of books.

In The Tale of the Tub (ca. 1694-99), Jonathan Swift attacks the pernicious influence of indexes by satirically assuming the persona of a scholar who approves of them:

[W]e of this age have discovered a shorter and more prudent method to become scholars and wits, without the fatigue of reading or of thinking.… [T]he choicer, the profounder, and politer method, [is] to get a thorough insight into the index by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail. For to enter the palace of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms, therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back-door.

And of course, Swift can’t resist an off-color analogy:

Thus physicians discover the state of the whole body, by consulting only what comes from behind.

So the tradition of the death of, well, tradition is a very old tradition indeed—a lot older than Swift, even.

The postfuturist sage Aforista recently caused quite an uproar with this remark: “Writing originated purely for accounting purposes; all subsequent uses have contributed to writing’s decay.” Yes, I know, it’s a frightful thing to say, but Aforista will speak her own mind. And in any case, Plato would have regarded Aforista’s observation as much too generous toward writing. In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates relates how the god Theuth invented writing, and how he was upbraided by King Thamus for doing so:

[T]his discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

So writing itself meant the end of truth, thought, memory, and—I forget the rest of it. And—oh, the irony!—here I sit at my computer, utilizing the most pernicious technology ever devised, putting down words that are useful for nothing except to turn you, dear reader, into “tiresome company.” Besides, I’ve just used up my allotted number of keystrokes for today, so I’ll get back to all this later.

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One comment on “Of Back-of-the-Book Indexes and Other Cultural Catastrophes

  1. [...] a previous post, I considered innovations and inventions that had spelt the end of culture itself, ranging from [...]

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