Book review: A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, by Judith Flanders

Alphabetical order is all around us, to various degrees of prominence. Yet it is less straightforward than is often supposed: my efforts to catalogue my books and DVDs, not to mention the bibliographies that I proofread, point to myriad complications. Alphabetical order is not the uniform ideal it may superficially seem to be.

It also often shares space with other kinds of order, such as genre, or personal cosmology. A traditional phone book does not quite go from A to Z – businesses are listed separately. Many of them, moreover, game the system, bypassing its seeming neutrality. (Nicola Barker’s novel Darkmans – itself the size of a phone book – has a character enraged by a competitor whose company name pips him in the listings.)

Still, alphabetical order is far more neutral than other systems. Historically, power played an outsized role in the arrangement of listable items; for centuries that power reflected prevailing religious norms. In early medieval Christendom, works often strove to reflect the hierarchy of God’s creation, and so alphabetical order ‘looked like resistance, even rebellion […] or possibly ignorance’.

This comment comes from a new book, A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders. It tells the story of ‘how we moved from the arrival of the alphabet around 2000 BCE to the slow unfolding of alphabetical order as a sorting tool some three thousand years later’. It is a welcome exploration of an area that has received relatively little attention compared to the alphabet itself:

Ordering and sorting, and then returning to the material sorted via reference tools, have become so integral to the Western mindset that their significance is both almost incalculable and curiously invisible.

We take alphabetical order for granted now, but its emergence was fraught with uncertainty and complexity, not all of which has been ironed out. Initially it was applied only to a word’s first letter. Not until centuries later was it extended beyond that, and here, too, different styles were applied: Konrad of Mure arranged the headwords in his 1273 encyclopedia Fabularius alphabetically up the second syllable – and then by the number of syllables.

Book cover has a white rhombus in the middle, with the author's name, title, and subtitle. The background above and below this is a colourful alphabet in intricate calligraphy. The book title is in red all caps; the author's name and book subtitle are in black script.Each innovator had to solve order for themself, and commonly had to explain their system to readers presumed to be unfamiliar with it. Teasing out the early development of alphabetical order requires much reading between the lines, since original texts (and other artefacts of writing) often have not survived, or survive only as copies, which were routinely reordered per later conventions.

The gradual shift from subject categories to alphabetical order, with its greater abstraction, was ‘more than a move from an unwieldy to a more convenient system (our perception, of course, not theirs)’, Flanders writes. ‘It required an altered perspective’:

To modern eyes, deus means God; it is also a Latin word, and it is in addition made up of four letters, d-e-u-s, which are a linguistic construct, created by humans, that hold no inherent meaning or value. To Isidore of Seville, however, the word deus, even spelled out on a page in his Etymologies, was indissoluble with the abstract idea the word represented. It took a shift in perception for medieval thinkers before locating d-e-u-s under D, rather than at the head of the text, caused no profound sense of transgression.

A Place for Everything delves into the cultural changes that motivated the increasing use of alphabetical order, such as the explosion in documentation of all types that came with rising populations – human memory has its limits – and the availability of paper as a cheap alternative to parchment. The increasing bulk and complexity of law and bookkeeping intensified the need for organizational efficiency.

The world was growing more organized, more bureaucratized, more reliant on paper, not merely physically, but mentally too. And with that new systematization came new ways to map the paper world, new ways to locate individual elements as and when needed. Customs, and even laws, incorporated these changes, and then came to rely on them.

Libraries play a major role, and their evolving styles of inventory and catalogue are brought vividly to life. We learn how great figures of science and the humanities liked to sort their vast notes: Erasmus, Pepys, Goethe, Leibniz (a librarian for much of his life who created ‘the first fully alphabetical [library] catalog in the German-speaking lands’). Robert Boyle tried myriad techniques: colour-coding, numerals, mnemonic verses, lettered boxes – but not, oddly, alphabetical order.

When encyclopedias began dropping the old hierarchies, some people feared ‘the atomization of knowledge that alphabetization might herald’. Coleridge, for one, was disturbed by the randomness of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, to him now a ‘huge unconnected miscellany’. Flanders identifies a ‘fault line’ in intellectual circles, with the older system ‘designed by, and for, the learned’ being superseded by one that was more quickly and easily accessible by the general public.

There are fascinating excursions into the unfolding of related devices for organizing text, such as glosses, indexing, marginalia, cross-referencing, and page numbering. These are skilfully intertwined with condensed accounts of such topics as the origins of printing and the vogues for specialized furniture (e.g., the Wooton desk) and office accessories like the newsroom spindle or spike.

Alphabetical order reaches only so far, of course. Some writing systems do not use an alphabet, and even in the heavily alphabetized West, there are analphabetical holdouts such as Roget’s Thesaurus, whose internal logic intrigued me intensely as a child. The relentless spread of digitalization, meanwhile, produces systems that can be alphabetized with a click – or searched just as easily, bypassing the alphabet.

The prevalence of alphabetical order has begotten a strange invisibility, making A Place For Everything an enlightening and richly enjoyable read. While exploring how alphabetical order rose to near-ubiquity in the West, it also offers a broad and entertaining history of adjacent tools and ideas. You can order it from publisher Basic Books (who, full disclosure, sent me a copy) or from your local bookshop.

12 Responses to Book review: A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, by Judith Flanders

  1. david says:

    My wife once put my books and LPs in ‘pretty’ order, the order that looked best. We are still married, but it was touch and go for a while.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Ha. I get the appeal of aesthetic arrangement – it plays a role on my own shelves, along with other factors. But applying one’s preferences to someone else’s things, that can quickly get tricky.

  2. mazblast says:

    Months ago, I read something about the super-sanitizing in an English library. The subcontractor who did the work cleaned well, but apparently put the books back on each shelf by size.

  3. Ferdinand Cesarano says:

    I thank you for making me aware of this book. I have bought it.

  4. Computers do odd things to alphabetical order, especially when numbers are involved. Sometimes words in capital letters go before the rest (I think it’s that way round. Then you have librarians who shelve all the surnames beginning with Mc and Mac together, at the start of the Ms, if I remember correctly. And I can never remember where’re find the ‘du Mauriers’ and the ‘le Carrés’ and the like. Even more complicated with double names, especially as that depends on the nationality of the author.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I understand librarians’ decision about Mc and Mac: there’s so much variation and uncertainty over whether a name is McX or MacX that splitting them up would lead to considerable inconvenience, and worse. And yes, the other prefixes you mention (as well as d’, de, del, di, della, la, von, von der, etc.) all raise questions that different people and institutions answer differently.

      Numbers can certainly complicate things. A small example from my file of DVDs: strictly speaking Se7en should go before Serendipity, but I treat the ‘7’ like a ‘v’ and put it after. (I could drop that wonky ‘7’, but I like it just enough to retain it.)

  5. Great post! The potential inequalities created by alphabetical order also pose a problem when it comes to different languages using different versions even of the Latin alphabet, whether that’s the use of diacritics or extra letters to English’s A-Z. Is this something the book touched on at all?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thank you! The book doesn’t really get into how diacritics complexify alphabetical order, but it does look at how the problem manifests in keyboard design:

      Such is the Anglo-American dominance of modern technology that many countries that use non-alphabetic writing forms have been forced to create work-arounds. The typewriter, and subsequently the computer keyboard, are glaring examples of this bias: they have a strictly limited number of keys; limited abilities to superimpose diacritics or letters that alter their form depending on their position in a word without going into separate keyboards or using special codes; and the direction of the writing is left to right. Typewriters and keyboards for alphabetic languages that do not adhere to these basics have long been available, but they are “modified”—the twenty-six-letter alphabet, with at most minimal accents, written left to right, is considered to be the norm; all else is a variant.

      • I sometimes wonder what we’re missing out on (as humanity) because of the dominance of English online. As a native English user I have access to a far greater portion of the online world than others – define privilege there! There’s definitely scope to imagine alternative universes where technologies have been built around Arabic or Mandarin, rather than adapted as an afterthought, and consequently look completely different and have different biases. The use of emoji and other symbols, though, takes digital communication outside the scope of an alphabet. Anyway, thanks for responding to my ramblings!

        • Stan Carey says:

          I wonder the same sometimes, Isobel. While I share your privilege of partaking in the linguistic dominance of English, I regret how surely it has impoverished us at the same time and has fed a self-perpetuating cycle of monolingualism. We lose a language somewhere in the world every couple of weeks, and with it a unique expression of human nature.

          There’s a parallel universe where I grew up speaking Irish as a first language instead of learning it in school and then later losing most of it through disuse, because it’s largely confined to a few pockets along the west coast of Ireland after centuries of imperial onslaught from our neighbour. It’s one reason I cherish the English dialect I speak, infused and shaped as it is by the Irish tongue.

          It took me a little while to get on board the emoji train, but I’m a big fan now in certain contexts and appreciate their considerable universality.

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