Dennis Duncan

Dennis Duncan is an associate professor at UCL and the author of Index, A History of the

Is writing now changing the world for the worse?

How do you feel about writing? Does that sound like a bizarre question? OK, what about this? Do you worry that you don’t read enough? About the encroachment of screen time into book time? About the decline of letter-writing or penmanship? In universities, where ChatGPT has made a nightmare of written assessments, lecturers have had

Are we losing the wisdom of the ages?

‘Now, what I want is Facts…You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.’ When Dickens begins Hard Times with these words, spoken by the odious, square-faced Mr Gradgrind, we are left in no doubt that, for Dickens, an education should consist of

The whimsy – and casual cruelty – of the memoir index

It’s that time when publishers flood bookshops with celebrity memoirs. We all know a sleb autobiography is rarely the work of the celebrity, but the ghostwriter is not the only anonymous voice at work – an indexer can play a quietly subversive part too. One of my favourite index moments is in Shaun Ryder’s autobiography

Use it or lose it: has the public library had its day?

I write this in a garret a few doors down from the public library in Muswell Hill, north London. It is a nice irony that a century and a half ago, on the site where the free-to-join municipal library now stands, was a villa owned by one Charles Edward Mudie. In the mid-19th century, Mudie

Written in blood or bound in human skin: the world’s weirdest books

In 1791, Isaac D’Israeli — father of prime minister Benjamin — published his most famous work, the Curiosities of Literature, a collection of freewheeling mini-essays on whatever literary topics happened to tickle their author’s fancy: ‘Titles of Books’, ‘Noblemen Turned Critics’, ‘On the Custom of Saluting after Sneezing’, ‘Cicero’s Puns’. One of its joys is

Binding love

In the spring of 1998, Rolling Stones fans in Germany were disappointed to hear that the band had been forced to cancel a string of gigs. Keith Richards, the ne plus ultra of rock’s wild men, had damaged a rib in a tumble from a ladder while trying to retrieve a book from one of

Method in the madness

Have you heard of the Oulipo? The long-running Parisian workshop for experimental writing? Even if you haven’t, you might have heard of some of its members: Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp. The group’s stock-in-trade (so-called ‘constrained writing’) is best illustrated by their most notorious production: Perec’s 1969 novel La Disparition which manages to avoid

Reading the reeds

In 2016, after some unseemly back-and-forth between the Commons and Lords, it was decided that Acts of Parliament should no longer be printed on calfskin. Instead, new acts are now recorded on paper, though, in a classic parliamentary compromise, they will still be bound between vellum covers. Since the first paper mills appeared in Britain

The forerunner of Google

On 9 May 1502, a young Spaniard joined the fleet setting sail for the newly discovered Americas. The boy, Hernando, was 13 and his father was Christopher Columbus, ‘Admiral of the Ocean Sea’. Although Columbus père had already crossed the Atlantic three times, this would nevertheless be a journey of almost unimaginable privation. Hernando would