The Appendix, Appendixed.

The Universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries… When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves to be possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in some hexagon. The universe was justified; the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind’s hope. —Jorge Luis Borges

Because the web is always text searchable, there’s less need for a guide that lists every proper name or noun. But there is a place for a system that gets more creative. Below are some selections from The Appendix’s new index, which we debut today, along with some thoughts from Appendix editor Benjamin Breen on the poetical possibilities of the index.

Detail from Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, 1566
Wikimedia Commons

How do we order what we’ve learned of the world?

René Descartes was among the first to diagnose the problem faced by readers of his generation:

Even if all knowledge could be found in books, where it is mixed in with so many useless things and confusingly heaped in such large volumes, it would take longer to read those books than we have to live in this life and more effort to select the useful things than to find them oneself.

Descartes, with characteristic sass, decided that it was better to throw out books and start from scratch than to spend a lifetime poring through them.

Jorge Luis Borges reached a different conclusion. In 1941, he imagined a “Library of Babel” that contained every book that could possibly exist: histories of the future, “autobiographies of archangels,” lost gnostic gospels, “the treatise Bede could have written (but did not)” even “the true story of your death.” And dwarfing all of these works, Borges envisioned a universe-worth of endless nonsense, jumbled texts without coherence. A book that repeats the letters M C and V over and over. A book of utter gibberish surrounding one phrase at its center: “O Time thy pyramids.”

Although the library initially seems to be a blessing to humankind, it breeds violence and madness: “thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons,” writes Borges. “These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts.”

The problem was this: although, somewhere in the endless branching hexagons of books there existed a “faithful catalog of the Library,” no one knew its location. Nor, even were it to be found, could the true index to the library’s contents be reliably distinguished from the “thousands of false catalogs.” As law professor James Grimmelman notes Borges’s Library of Babel is “a pure and perfect example of information overload.”

For Borges the librarian, the problem wasn’t too many books, or too large an accumulation of data, but not having a good index.

On the occasion of attempting an index for our own articles, we at The Appendix grappled with the problem presented by Borges’s library. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, “If you wish to make an index from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Indexing isn’t just about recording what belongs in which category, dryly quantifying and tabulating like the Charles Dickens tutor Gradgrind, who insists that his students define a horse.* * Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.

Creating an index can be a work of imagination, a creative act. In deciding precisely what an object is, we also make an incremental step toward constructing our own mental universe, and the universes of those who interact with us.

Granted, the poetic nature of the index is not much in evidence nowadays. They run pretty dry in the twenty-first century, usually consisting of little more than a list of proper names and common nouns.

In the early decades of their existence, however, indices were quite a bit weirder. The “General Index” to William Dampier’s 1697 Voyages distinguished between “Bells, musical, struck upon, 342” and “Bells, with claws, worshipt, 411.” It classified both scorpions and tea as drugs, and contained individual entries for things like “Dew at night where it never rains” and “Burying alive, where and why.” Dampier’s index even contained miniature narratives: the entry for ‘Night’ continued on with “Singing and Dancing then usual,” “Fires then seen,” and “Drum heard.”

Likewise, the sheer exuberance of early modern attempts to categorize and index exhibit a sort of poetic approach to understanding life. The title page of Rafael Bluteau’s 1712 Dictionario Portuguez e Latino promised readers an almost surreal array of conceptual categories. ‡ Economic, Qualitative, Mathematic, Dogmatic, Fruit-related, Xenophonic, Quidditative

This poetic approach to indexing is the one that has inspired us at The Appendix.

Benjamin Breen is the editor-in-chief of The Appendix and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin.