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Subjects and Concords

Fara Dabhoiwala, interviewed by Lauren Kane
“One of the intellectual quirks of professional historians might be that we find pretty much everything interesting and can appreciate why it would be exciting to study.”
Fara Dabhoiwala

Fara Dabhoiwala

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Google is effectively one large index, at least according to Fara Dabhoiwala, who reviews a history of the index in the June 22, 2023, issue. And like the Internet, he writes, the development of this research tool inspired a great deal of anxiety “that flighty, superficial modes of accessing information were supplanting ‘proper’ habits of reading and understanding.” But you’d be wrong to think that the index is nothing more than a catalog of relevant terms. A truly well-built one is a work unto itself, accounting for conceptual organization as well as references to names and phrases; the skilled indexer sees the primary text from a bird’s-eye view.

A historian of England and the English-speaking world, Fara Dabhoiwala has contributed to The New York Review on topics such as global imperialism and the life and work of Amartya Sen. He’s also written a book, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, about how the Enlightenment reshaped societal attitudes about sex.

We e-mailed over the past week about the index for Samuel Pepys’s diaries, the microhistory genre, and our current “age of concordance.”


Lauren Kane: As a scholar, what is your personal history with indexes? Do you remember your first experience working on one, maybe as a graduate student?

Fara Dabhoiwala: When I was researching my doctorate, I read page by page through the whole of Robert Latham and William Matthews’s edition of The Diary of Samuel Pepys. The diary itself, which covers almost ten years in the 1660s, is of course extraordinary, one of the greatest autobiographical texts ever written. But that edition, in eleven volumes published between 1970 and 1983, is also a magnificent feat of modern scholarship, and the index—the eleventh volume—is simply amazing. Every person, event, subject, or object is there. Any question you might ever ask about the contents of the text is easily answered. I recently wrote a piece on Pepys and slavery, something that was at the forefront of no one’s mind forty years ago, but even on that subject the index’s categorizations and cross-references turned out to be invaluable.

What’s equally remarkable is the format of the many longer entries. In other indexes to large editions, the entries for the central characters often degenerate simply into long lists of subheadings, each followed by an offputtingly long run of page numbers. But in this case each entry is constructed as a little narrative that is a pleasure to read through in its own right. I’ve never been able to open the volume without being distracted by reading about something I wasn’t looking for. It’s such fun to use that it rather spoils you for the run-of-the-mill indexes of other scholarly editions, which can be rather a slog to work with.  

When you write in your piece that we’re living in the “golden age of the concordance,” what do you mean by that?

I think I was paraphrasing Dennis Duncan there. As he points out, there are two kinds of index. One is a listing of all the words in a text—that’s a concordance, a genre first developed as a tool of biblical scholarship. Compiling that kind of catalog requires effort, but no imagination. You don’t even need to understand what you’re reading, all you need to do is find every instance of, say, “lust” or “Oppenheimer” in a text, and list the corresponding locations. Computers are excellent at this—your laptop or e-reader can do it in the blink of an eye. Internet search engines do the same thing on an enormous scale. Whenever you use one, you’re essentially just hitting Control+F to find particular words or phrases across Google’s or Microsoft’s immense cache of all the accessible texts in the world. So in that sense, because we are now all so reliant on these giant computerized word indexes, we’re living in the most concordance-dependent age ever. 

When it comes to individual books, however, the other kind of index, the subject index, is actually usually much more useful, and also harder to produce, because it depends on understanding the meaning of a text, both at a granular level and across the work as a whole. A subject index draws together ideas and strains of thought from across a book, and groups them into useful categories. Often, in fact, that means using headwords and categories that are different from the actual words on the pages to which they’re linked. Doing it well requires style and imagination. At best, an index provides the reader with lots of connections, syntheses, and shortcuts to the author’s meaning, which is why it’s such a shame that e-texts usually omit them. Duncan cleverly ends his book with a comparison between two indexes of its contents—an excellent one produced by a human, and another generated by a computer (unbeatable at spotting words, but useless at judging their meaning and significance).

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You’re currently at work on a history of the signature, which sounds like it could be filed in the same category as Duncan’s book. It’s what some might call a “microhistory,” though I wonder what you think of that slippery term: What is the value of these “small-scale,” if you will, histories? Why do they matter, both to scholars and to the general public?

“Microhistory” is now an endlessly used, abused, and argued-about term among scholars. But I think most people would agree that it’s best applied to books that illuminate something larger by focusing in depth on an obscure person or a single event, such as Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, a study of the mental world of a sixteenth-century miller in Northeastern Italy, or Natalie Zemon Davis’s wonderful The Return of Martin Guerre, which explores notions of personal identity among early modern French peasants through the life of an extraordinary imposter. Many fine microhistories take what at first seems bizarre and therefore unrepresentative, and show how it is not only intrinsically fascinating, but a portal into a whole universe of understanding. That’s their particular value, and it’s why they grip scholars and general readers alike.

The history of the index, or of the signature, does something similar but in a slightly different way. Its chronological focus is super-wide rather than super-narrow, because it’s not about a single life or event but an apparently timeless entity—in this case, a type of text (like the footnote, about which my Princeton colleague Anthony Grafton once wrote a wonderful book). It’s also related to the recently fashionable genre of histories of commodities and other objects—cod, sugar, cotton, paper, the cold virus, whatever. All of these focus on a physical thing, some small feature of the world that we encounter all the time but don’t think of as especially interesting, or as part of History with a capital H, which most people imagine as a chronicle of wars, revolutions, nations, and politicians that supposedly really explains how the world has changed over time. A good history of such an object reveals, first, that this thing that we take for granted (cod, footnotes, the fork) does have a jolly interesting and eventful history of its own (it’s not timeless); and, secondly, that its history casts light on much bigger stories.

For Duncan and the index, that larger tale is the changing character of reading itself over the past millennium. As for the signature—well, my book about that is as yet completely unplanned and unwritten. But there are some obvious big themes that intrigue me. To write about the signature would be to illuminate, for example, the histories of writing, of trust, of ownership, and of personal identity.

With a subject like the index or the signature, how does a historian begin research? What questions do you start by asking? What are the challenges unique to it?

The biggest challenge is the ubiquity of the thing. It’s everywhere, both in the present and in the past, which is why it’s impossible to master the evidence in any kind of comprehensive way. But obviously, once you see that, it’s also an indicator of the importance of the subject. The next, related problem is the huge span of time and range of sources that you then have to try to cover—centuries, perhaps millennia, across many different cultures.

So to do this kind of project well, you first have to spend years just accumulating material from across as wide a range of reading as possible, writing your examples on slips of paper and stuffing them into a large envelope dedicated to the topic (as the great historian Keith Thomas used to recommend) or filing away PDFs and photographs into a Dropbox folder on your computer (as I’ve been doing, in between other projects, for over a decade now). By the time your envelope or folder begins to bulge, you’ll ideally also have started to notice interesting large-scale trends and changes, or at least to formulate some big questions: When did people first start using signatures for various purposes? Why did sugar come to be planted in different places across the globe? How have the ingredients of “paper” changed over the past two thousand years, and with what effects? Once you can pose a few big queries like that, you’ll automatically be generating further ideas, hypotheses, and lines of inquiry. But it’s always going to be slow going, compared to a more conventional historical topic.

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You’ve written for us on the violence of the British presence in the Caribbean, your first book was a history of sex in the West since the Enlightenment, and in your current research you’re looking at the global history of free speech. What draws you to and excites you about a topic? Is there a common thread through your work that goes beyond subject matter?

I think one of the intellectual quirks of professional historians might be that we find pretty much everything interesting and can appreciate why it would be exciting to study—medieval Baltic shipping routes, seventeenth-century Angolan fashions, Aztec games, Coptic architecture, cold war meteorology, the diet of Saxon peasants, Ming dynasty political theory, early South American newspaper advertisements, the evolution of the signature. And, just as in the hard sciences, it is as critically important to nurture and sustain blue-skies scholarship in humanistic research as it is to support work on fields and periods that seem more immediately “relevant” to the present. Valuing free scholarly inquiry and advancing understanding for its own sake are among the hallmarks of a civilized, rather than a philistine, society. Plus, you never know when that accumulated knowledge (about the spread of ancient plagues, or the languages of the Middle East, or the origins of Russian imperialism, say) might not suddenly become topical and “useful.”

Having said that, what usually excites me most when writing for a wider public is the chance to explain that a historical subject is not just interesting (all history is!), but also important to our present predicaments, in ways that have been overlooked or insufficiently appreciated.

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