Alphabetisation brings complications of its own. In our global society, which alphabet do you use? Flanders acknowledges that hers is a western-dominated narrative — and one that perhaps ends too quickly, jumping swiftly from “I” to “Y” in its own alphabetical chapter headings. Much of the digital age, which has revolutionised how we access and order information, is left untouched. A Place for Everything is nonetheless a charming repository of idiosyncrasy, a love letter to literacy that rightly delights in alphabetisation’s exceptions as much as its rules. And while the alphabet may have lost its novelty since Balbi’s day, Flanders shows us that it hasn’t lost its charm.
Judith Flanders’s A Place for Everything presents itself as a history of alphabetical order, but in fact it is more than that. Rather, as the title suggests, it offers something like a general history of the various ways humans have sorted and filed the world around them — a Collison-level view of the matter, in which alphabetical order is just one system among many. After all, in certain eras, the alphabet has not enjoyed an uncritical ride as the ordering of choice. The medieval mind, for example, trained to categorise, to look for God’s pattern in the world, was suspicious of its arbitrariness. The Romans, meanwhile, ran their vast and officious empire with little need for it. And at Harvard, Yale, and elsewhere, graduating students were listed in order of their family’s social status until the late 1800s.
Today, in our new age of information overkill, alphabetical order is on the wane; Google’s algorithm has far better things to worry about when sorting search results than the old-fashioned ABC. Yet in the grand scheme of things, perhaps not much has changed. As Flanders’s short but fascinating book shows, the alphabet has only ever been one listing method competing with many others: some weird, some wonderful, some completely mad and random, but each providing a tantalising glimpse into the minds that dreamt them up.
Any history of innovation is most fun when you meet the resisters and strugglers. The description of Goethe’s paper pouches with numbers sounds frankly hellish. His diary of trying to reorganise his letters, documents and papers covers years, but alphabetisation did not turn him on. A 16th-century monastic writer complained that alphabetical order, rather than chronological, ignores God’s plan and the innate superiority of the ancients over the moderns (an early Jacob Rees-Mogg here).