There’s one final book review for this year, and it’s a book I always wanted to read: the history of alphabetical order! Be still, my heart! A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, by Judith Flanders is a book that begged me to read it. And with its huge index (alphabetized, of course), end notes, and all the hallmarks of a modern nonfiction book, it did not fail to disappoint, at least if that’s the kind of reading material you like.
I’ll have to resort to memoirs to explain my excitement at finding this book. You see, when I was in second and third grade, I was annoying to teachers. They could not find enough work for me to do to keep me quiet, and I kept raising my hand to answer all the questions. I probably annoyed other kids, too. To remedy this, they passed me off to the patient librarian at Sidney Lanier Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida (also at the time home of education for deaf, mentally handicapped, and otherwise challenged kids, which was GREAT for teaching us that those are regular kids that are fine for playing with at recess). And yes, I know now that Sidney Lanier served in the Confederate military, but we were told he was a poet. The End.
Anyway, I proceeded to read through the contents of the library that matched my reading ability. I also needed books that matched my social development, which means not books with a lot of sex or overly “adult” themes that would confuse me. The librarian was very glad that I loved horses, because that made it simple. Just give Sue Ann books about horses, she thought. Then, she taught me how to find them myself in the magical card catalogue. OOOOOOO.
I loved the card catalogue. I’d just browse through it, amazed at its orderliness. I aged a bit and started my own collection of books, of course starting with Black Beauty. Duh. Once I had more than a few books, I was compelled to alphabetize them, by author, of course. There WERE a few I organized by size (which I learned from the book I’m supposed to be reviewing was common).
By the time I was in middle school, I had my own card catalogue (always spelled that way in my mind), made from index cards. I had a title index and an author index. Each card said when I got it and had an indication of its type (mainly F, NF, and SF for fiction, nonfiction, and science fiction (I moved on from horses)). This went with me and was updated throughout high school.
Even as I got older, I obsessively alphabetized my books. It made me happy. It also made finding books easy. I was an academic. I had a LOT of books, but added categories like Japanese, linguistics, knitting to the system.
Once I had children, I gave up and just shelved books by type. Every time I’d get them alphabetized, something would mess them up, so I gave up.
Back to the Book
Judith Flanders taught me a lot about books and their organization, or lack thereof. First off, there weren’t many books for a long time, and they were often bundled together randomly. That’s parchment books. Papyrus ones were scrolled, of course. And you generally read a book from start to finish, so there weren’t many organizational helps like subtitles, page numbers and such. All those things had to be invented!
Once libraries showed up there were lots and lots of ways to organize them. Some organized by size, some by topic, and some by the conventionally used systems of organization, which were fascinating hierarchies. God always came first, then rich people, then other subjects. That’s how lists of all sorts were organized, not just books. I have no idea how anyone found anything in the olden days. People also wrote all over books, and no two copies of any book were the same, since they were hand copied. Challenging.
Eventually, typing and carbon paper made organizing correspondence less complex, while double entry bookkeeping made financial stuff easier, but that all depended on having notebooks and files. So many things we take for granted today are NOT that old, like filing cabinets, file folders, staples, desks, and more. This book will blow your mind and really, really make you respect all those humans of the past who had to memorize everything.
So, as you can see, Everything in Its Place shares the history of a lot more than ordering systems! There’s writing systems, ways to permanently or impermanently record things in writing, storage methods, and of course, organizing systems.
That brings me to my favorite discovery in the book, which is about Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System. I was always very annoyed by this whole thing. Topics just didn’t make sense to me, especially the order in which they were arranged (all that Christian stuff in the beginning with lots of numbers, but then just one number for each other religion, for example, and science was weirdly arranged). I never arranged my books by that system, nope.
Was I ever thrilled to discover that Melvil Dewey was an asshole! A sexist! An anti-Semite! A homophobe! A creep! I just knew it. And these biases of his made finding certain topics really hard (there were changes made…but now I see why they use other systems now).
In the end, while Flanders didn’t make the book overly exciting, she did add some fun footnotes that I enjoyed, and she was certainly thorough in her research, which was complicated by the fact that there actually hasn’t been all that much research on organizational systems and alphabets. People just take them for granted. I was glad she addressed how to organize information in non-roman alphabets, like Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. I really feel bad that typewriters are still based on Western principles, which can make typing and printing take a while.
3 thoughts on “Book Review: A Place for Everything”
Sue , I enjoyed this post. As a child who grew up spending hours at the local library in Phila. Pa, I can relate to your love of books. If it had been possible at the time, I would have become a librarian. Now at age 86, I am still an avid reader and am a published author. Also a retired LLLeader.
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It’s great to hear from you, Marie! Never stop reading!
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