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.