Judging a Book by Its Index

Above, an index page from Edward Carpenter’s My Days and Dreams

Right Reading, an essay by Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848)

Writing is justly denominated an art; I think that reading claims the same distinction. To adorn ideas with elegance is an act of the mind superior to that of receiving them; but to receive them with a happy discrimination, is the effect of a practiced taste.

There are secrets in the art of reading, which tend to facilitate its purposes, by assisting the memory, and augmenting intellectual opulence… It is not always necessary, in the pursuits of learning, to read every book entire. Of many books it is sufficient to seize the plan, and to examine some of their portions. Of the little supplement at the close of a volume, few readers conceive the utility; but some of the most eminent writers in Europe have been great adepts in the art of index reading. I, for my part, venerate the inventor of indexes; and I know not to whom to yield the preference, either to Hippocrates, who was the first great anatomiser of the human body, or to that unknown labourer in literature who first laid open the nerves and arteries of a book.   Isaac D’Israeli


Right Reading is an essay in Isaac D’Israeli’s Literary Miscellanies (1840), which I read for Volume 47 of the LibriVox Nonfiction Collection.  When I happened on D’Israeli’s praise for index reading, I had an “aha” moment. Like D’Israeli, I’m a fan of indexes. If a book has an index, or a bibliography, that’s where I turn first. A good book index, well-composed and preferably a bit quirky, as is Edward Carpenter’s index to his autobiography My Days and Dreams is, for me, an enticement to read the book. A poorly constructed index? Well, that’s another matter. Indexing is an art…


My Days and Dreams, the audio book.

and if you want to read the index!