Divide and conquer

Most of us take tables of contents, chapter lists, and book indexes for granted. We expect them to be there, and when a non-fiction book comes along lacking one or the other (or both), we are tempted to put that book on our own Index.

There is so much information out there that we often struggle to keep track, stay abreast and afloat. For more and more people today, information means digital information to be found on the internet. But there is a huge and just barely manageable amount of information and knowledge already available in printed books, which keep being printed just as more and more digital land falls under cultivation.

Without a table of contents, an index or a bibliography, books would be less usable than they are now. Usability has been one of the driving forces behind the evolution of the book, from the unwieldy papyrus roll to the text-searchable web page.

Usability means searchability. The requirements of searchability evolved from reading the entire text (0% searchability), to reading sections of the text (basic divisions in ‘books’ within ‘volumes’, of ‘parts/chapters’ within books), to reading yet smaller sections of text keyed to larger sections of text (chapter lists, tables of contents, indexes of names, places, ideas), to digital text (100% searchability through manual/voice input), to who-knows-what (mind-controlled searchability, perhaps, not to mention A.I.).

As I said, we take chapter lists, tables of contents and indexes for granted. Yet, they emerged in the Middle Ages as a result of a long and arduous process of studying theological texts against an ever-growing supply of knowledge and information. The requirements of searchability – still at work today – forced the scribal cultures of the 12th and 13th centuries to devise more useful ways of finding one’s way through the textual thicket. Referencing became paramount. On the back of a vigorous theological culture marked by assimilation of Aristotelian logic, the division became the rallying cry of a whole generation of scholastic innovators. The division of the books of the Bible into the chapters we have today occurs around this time. Chapter lists are added at the beginning of books divided by chapters to help guide the eye and the mind. Running titles (the header at the top of a page) signpost the books, parts and chapters of textual works whenever one opens a book.

By dividing books into manageable, searchable, referenceable bits, those scholars conquered the written word and brought it home.

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