Sunday, 30 July 2017

#25 Book indexes, exhibition of


It’s hard enough to display books interestingly, but book indexes? This I have got to see, I thought, so I travelled up to Oxford last month and picked my way through the city’s shops, tour parties and bicycles to the Bodleian Library, where there turns out to be… one display case.

Still, it covers a lot of ground. How do we, and did we, marshal all the information and guidance we come across and try to make it available for future use? First are early Bible concordances (from 1230 onwards) – alphabetical lists of key words together with the passages they come from. These were the models for all subsequent alphabetical indexes, we are told. The curators have grouped three of them with a ‘Goldilocks’ motif – one too small (the size of a smartphone), one too big and unwieldy, and one just the right size.

Then there is a charming list of individual squiggles put together by early medieval theologian Robert Grosseteste, each of which he assigned to one of 440 topics such as ‘Imagination’ and ‘Existence of God’, then used in the margins of books when the writers mentioned these things. 

Next are the first known page numbers, in a book printed in Cologne in 1490, followed by playful indexes by Lewis Carroll and Virginia Woolf. Lastly we have artist Tom Phillips’s concordance to The Human Document by W H Mallock, a 19th-century book which he picked up at random in a bookshop in 1966 and vowed to use as the basis for a long-term artwork. Since then he has brought out six editions of the book, calling it Humument, most pages worked over by him artistically at least twice. Here is one of the pages, the text now illegible under Phillips’s ink except for a few words picked out in white bubbles to make a nonsense sentence. Phillips’s concordance to the novel is a brown pocketbook with tiny lists of handwritten words.

The display is thus book-ended with two concordances, the first a necessary accompaniment to a central text of the time, the last a private aid for an idiosyncratic artwork. But I would have liked to see a bang up-to-date index showing the current state of the art.



But is the search box putting indexes out of business? ‘Ctrl +F is not the same as a good subject index,’ claims the display text. Is this true? Well, a good index is not an automatically compiled list of words but the work of someone trained in choosing and ordering the most important names and topics, and thus should have some intellectual credibility. An index also offers chance discoveries – you may find things by accident when browsing through it, not so likely when starting off with your own search terms. An index is also I suppose a production in itself, like a noun-heavy summary of the book with wonky syntax and a non-chronological order. And (this clinches the deal for me) they work on paper.

A search box, by contrast, is not a work but a tool, albeit a very powerful one.

Nevertheless, indexes will have to argue much harder for themselves in the age of the e-book. This display, by showing that they have functioned for hundreds of years as ways of mapping reading and thought, is part of that argument.


The Book Index was at the Bodleian Library, Oxford from 28 May - 9 July 2017.

Friday, 9 June 2017

#24: Old tyre

Someone has made this old tyre and wire netting into a cactus shelter – I came across it on my daily walk a month or so ago and have been keeping an eye on it ever since. The cactus is growing to peep out over the edge of the tyre, though it’s not tall enough to push against the netting yet.

Who would do this? Start gardening in – not a wilderness, but a dusty track next to a parched riverbed, populated at the moment by oleanders, those friends of dry terrain (I particularly remember them down the central reservations of motorways in Sicily).

This improvised flowerpot could easily belong in a post-apocalyptic world, with humans trying to fashion artefacts out of leftover bits of rubbish. In my gloomier moments I do think a slow environmental apocalypse has happened to Andalusia, starting with the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago and bringing us now to this denuded landscape with traces of old terraces like wrinkles on the mountainsides.

A step further in the imagination and we are in a world with no more humans. This is a recurrent fantasy of mine, imagining buildings on their way to crumbling and plants (no longer any ‘weeds’) covering remnants of civilisation so that the Chrysler Building, for example, becomes like those ancient overgrown Mayan temples ‘discovered’ in the Americas in the 19th century – though this time there will be no-one to do the discovering.

Which brings me to a poem I came across recently through The Reader Organisation which to me speaks of the world after humankind:

I sing of change

I sing
of the beauty of Athens
without its slaves

Of a world free
of kings and queens
and other remnants
of an arbitrary past

Of earth
with no
sharp north
or deep south
without blind curtains
or iron walls

Of the end
of warlords and armouries
and prisons of hate and fear

Of deserts treeing
and fruiting
after quickening rains

Of the sun
radiating ignorance
and stars informing
nights of unknowing

I sing of a world reshaped

© Niyi Osundare


Sunday, 30 April 2017

#23: Devil

This miserable creature howling on the end of the chain is, I assume, Satan, or at least a devil. His eyes are empty hollows and his face seems to have been damaged, peeled. He is utterly anonymous, stripped naked, with not even a hair. Contempt for him is shown in the cheap wood he is made of and in the thin, mocked-up wings. Whichever saint is standing on his back is, by contrast, fully clothed, coloured, rounded and larger, a person.

I found myself near this sculpture while listening to a concert in a local church and found myself looking at it repeatedly. While not exactly finding it distressing, I was disturbed by its cruelty, and the fact that such an image could be thought acceptable or even inspirational. Thank goodness most of us, both individually and as societies, have moved beyond such superstition-fuelled hatred. Actually, not thank goodness, thank – the development of rational thought since the Enlightenment, principally I suppose.

The sculpture made many different things spring into my mind – Blake’s famous comment that Paradise Lost shows Milton ‘was of the Devil’s party without knowing it’; Blake’s own puzzling poem To the Accuser Who Is God of This World which begins ‘truly my Satan thou art but a dunce’, and the witch in the musical Wicked – not wicked, but misunderstood.

I’ll finish with a poem by John Agard:

On First-Name Terms

Hey. None of this Beelzebub business.
Lighten up. No more Prince of Darkness
and all that Devil’s Advocate
kind of stuff. I’m your mate.
It’s all right to call me Dev
and I’ll call you Les or Mags or Trev.
Formality stinks. Don’t say evil. Say Ev.

© John Agard from The Devil’s Pulpit (Bloodaxe Books) via The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems ed. Wendy Cope (Faber & Faber).


Saturday, 25 March 2017

#22: Field border



A strange reversal, when the edges of a field are richer in plant life than the field itself. I noticed vetch, clover and greater periwinkle on top of the stone wall bordering this local field, plus a white flower I couldn’t identify. The field itself looked bare, presumably waiting for its crop to grow. It’s tempting to lament the monoculture and pesticides which have led to this situation, but it would be hypocritical, given that I had just returned from the weekly market with a rucksack full of giant, cheap fruit and vegetables – enormous shiny red peppers, large apples and leeks – local, but probably grown as pesticide-garnished monocultures under the plastic sheeting which covers large areas of ground around here, especially towards the coast.

When do borders become the richest things in human lives? I couldn’t help thinking of Thoreau’s statement in Walden, his chronicle of years spent living simply, ‘I love a broad margin to my life’. What might this broad margin be? Leisure, weekends? Time to think, create or play? Time which is undirected, not farmed to the last inch, so that it invites a higgledy-piggledy collection of tenants? Thoreau talks of his days which were not ‘minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock’.

Coming back to the real field, I wondered if those borders could be allowed to encroach a bit more – do we not have the technology to intensively farm some bits of land and leave increasing parts to be rewilded, as George Monbiot recommends in his book Feral? Perhaps together with reduced consumption, so that less of the food we buy is thrown away – the charity WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimates that an astonishing quarter of the food bought in the UK each year is wasted, mostly by households and food manufacturers, although only 60% of this wastage is avoidable. I will eat those red peppers. 

P.S. A friend tells me that the white flower is Allium, or wild garlic, of which there are more than 40 species in this part of the country.