A Place for Everything by Judith Flanders

Basic Books, 2020

Although subtitled A History of Alphabetical Order, this book is really about the history of how writing is organized: it has much more to say about the methods of organizing that alphabetical order has undergirded – and, respectively, that its predecessors in ordering things have undergirded – than about alphabetical order itself. These methods of organizing written language – indexes, catalogues, common-place books, tables of contents, encyclopedias, dictionaries, various pieces of specialized furniture, to name but a few – all depend upon the most basic kind of organizational technology: a way of ordering things. A Place for Everything pieces together the long and convoluted history of how alphabetical order gradually, and by fits and starts, rose to prominence among orderings.

For small numbers of items, chronological order or no particular order poses no problems; various forms of hierarchical ordering (e.g. first God, then angels, then humans, then animals, etc.) were also popular for a long time. But alphabetical order turned out to have a decisive advantage: to use it (whether to create an ordered list or to look something up in one), you only need to know the name of the item sought; its other attributes (e.g. date of joining the Académie Française) are irrelevant. Not everything or everyone has a date of joining the Académie, but most things that can be itemized have a name; moreover, you probably know the name, if nothing else, of whatever you want to look up. Thus alphabetical order could reign universally (in languages that have alphabets!).

Anyway—this is a fascinating book, the parts of which I found most fascinating I have barely mentioned.