Few of us think much of the alphabet and its familiar sing-song order once we’ve learned it as children. And yet the order of the alphabet, that simple knowledge that we take for granted, plays far more of a role in our lives than we usually consider. From the school register to the telephone book, from dictionaries and encyclopaedias to the library shelves, our lives are ordered from A to Z.
This magical system of organization not only guides us to the correct bus route or train schedule or the jar of coriander seeds between the cinnamon and the cumin in the supermarket, but it also, in the library or the bookshop, gives us the ability to sift through centuries of thought and writing, of knowledge and literature. Alphabetical order allows us to sort, to file and to find the information we have, and to locate the information we need.
In this entirely original new book, Judith Flanders draws our attention both to the neglected ubiquity of the alphabet and the long and complex history of its rise to prominence. For it was not ever thus. While the order of the alphabet itself became fixed very soon after our letters were first invented, its use to sort and store and organize proved far less obvious. To many of our forebears, the idea of organizing things by the alphabet rather than by established systems of hierarchy lay somewhere between unthinkable and disrespectful. Any order that placed archangel after angel and God after them both would have been tantamount to blasphemy.A Place for Everything fascinatingly uncovers the story of the gradual triumph of alphabetical order, from its early days as a possible sorting tool in the Great Library of Alexandria in the third century BCE to its current decline in our age of Wikipedia and Google. Along the way we encounter a wonderful potpourri of characters and stories, from the great collector Robert Cotton, who denominated his manuscripts with the names of the busts of the Roman emperors surmounting his bookcases (the sole known copy of Gawain and the Green Knight, now in the British Library, is still identified as Cotton Nero A.x), to the invention of the lever-arch file; from the Diamond Sutra, the world’s first known block-printed book, six hundred years before Gutenberg, to the unassuming sixteenth-century London bookseller who ushered in a revolution by listing his authors by ‘sirname’ first.
Judith Flanders, one of Britain’s leading popular historians, takes us on an enlightening journey through the history of our age-old obsession – long before Marie Kondo – with sorting our stuff.
Praise for Judith Flander's last book:
‘Flanders is a respected social historian, best known for studies on Victorian life, and the strength of this warm book lies in its quiet erudition.’ - The Times
'Judith Flanders . . . likes Christmas (I think), but she loves reality and its awkward, amusing facts. (A previous book of hers, Inside the Victorian Home, is deep, bright and encompassing.) - New York Times
'This informative and entertaining history is an absolute delight.' - Woman & Home