A Place for Everything

Yes, the title of the book is A Place for Everything.

No, it is not a Marie Kondo knockoff. It will be the subtitle that tells you what it’s really about: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order. That’s what it’s about. More or less. Mostly more.

Even with the subtitle you don’t really know what the book is about, for it’s much more than a history of alphabetical order. Basically it’s a scholarly history of sorting. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not for everybody—I’ve heard, for example, that there even are people who don’t keep their spices in alphabetical order!—but if you’re the sort of person who would like this sort of book, then it’s the right sort of book for you.

Remember card catalogs? If you are of a certain age, you will appreciate the mug in the image. Otherwise, ask your parents—or the librarian in your old high school. The card catalog reminds us how two different types of sorting are intertwingled: alphabetical order promotes easy retrieval if you know what you’re looking for, but hierarchical arrangements by topic and author promote browsing. If spices seem too narrow to be interesting, consider how you arrange your books. Since I can’t really consider your books, I can tell you how I arrange mine. My choice is multi-level sorting:

  • First, each bookcase (or set of bookcases) is for a major category. Right away this brings up an issue: are you a splitter or a lumper? If you’re a splitter, you will have separate sections for science fiction, mysteries, literary fiction, and so forth. Since I’m a lumper, I have one (very large) section for fiction. Similarly for linguistics, mathematics, and so forth. Altogether about ten major categories.
  • Now the second level: like all responsible adults, I shelve fiction alphabetically by author, but some categories are better sorted by title. Math is a good example, since most math books have multiple non-memorable authors. There are, of course, plenty of exceptions, but generally title is a more effective sort criterion.
  • Occasionally we need a third level: multiple novels by the same author, for instance. Those of course require either alphabetical sorting by title or chronological sorting by year of publication. I prefer the former except when reading a series. Since it’s too confusing to have two different sorting methods for the same set of books, I choose title.

You can tell that I’m fascinated by this sort of thing. You might not be. But A Place for Everything not only discusses the choices people make for sorting, it also provides extensive historical context for everything. Again this might not be your cup of tea, but I personally believe that you need this sort of context to appreciate anything that has changed over the years. I ran into a dilemma about this when teaching a one-semester English elective at Lincoln-Sudbury on the history of the English language. It obviously made sense to sort the materials chronologically, but do I go forward or backward? The argument for going forward is that it lets you see how the language changes over time; the argument for going backward is that the most difficult material comes last, where it should. I settled on a compromise: start at the present time, go rapidly backwards, and then return by going forwards to the present time (actually, to the future, with A Clockwork Orange).

By now you are surely wondering who the author is and how she arranges her chapters. The author is Judith Flanders, who is a historian, so you expect a chronological order. And to some extent that’s what you get. But the chapters are actually sorted alphabetically:

  1. A is for Antiquities.
  2. B is for the Benedictines.
  3. C is for Categories.
  4. D is for Distinctiones [sic].
  5. E is for Expansion.
  6. F is for Firsts.
  7. G is for Government.
  8. H is for History.
  9. I is for Index Cards.
  10. Y is for Y2K.

OK, that last one woke you up! If only she could have called it KY2 instead. Anyway, just as the subtitle of the entire book is important, so are the subtitles of the individual chapters, which reveal the historical order as well. For example, Chapter 1 is about the classical world, Chapter 2 the early Middle Ages, and so forth. Gotta stay organized!

I could go on and on, but this post is already too long. So I’ll conclude with some brief, randomly ordered remarks:

  • Flanders has an all-too-brief discussion of the complexities of alphabetizing words with diacritics, not to mention non-Roman alphabets, not to mention writing systems that are not alphabetical at all! This is fascinating stuff, actually.
  • If you ever had an older version of Roget’s Thesaurus, you probably appreciated his unusual ordering—grouping related words rather than sorting alphabetically. As a kid I was quite captivated by Roger’s quirky organization of the universe.
  • A bunch of related issues pop up throughout the book, issues that have little or nothing to do with alphabetical order. For example, there’s moveable type, book binding, what we write on, what we write with….
  • Flanders talks all too briefly about a related topic that has fascinated me ever since third grade or so: organizing books in a public or school library. For years I thought that the Dewey Decimal System was the only way to do this! It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned why the Library of Congress system is superior, and why sorting by Order of Acquisition makes it easy to shelve new books but very difficult to browse.
  • Indexing is crucial. Flanders quotes one Peter Daniels: “Writing makes civilization possible. Printing makes science possible. Indexing makes them both accessible.”
  • Finally, what about the organization of file systems on computers? This topic of course deserves some mention, but unfortunately it would take another whole book (and indeed there are many such books). Note that we’re talking about how file directories are displayed, not how they are handled internally. Then there’s the whole topic of algorithms for sorting, from the infamous Bubble Sort to Quicksort and…. OK, I’ll stop.

Categories: Books