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A Place For Everything

The Curious History of Alphabetical Order

Judith Flanders



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27 April 2021
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.
By:   Judith Flanders
Imprint:   Picador
Country of Publication:   United Kingdom
Dimensions:   Height: 198mm,  Width: 130mm,  Spine: 25mm
Weight:   276g
ISBN:   9781509881581
ISBN 10:   1509881581
Pages:   368
Publication Date:   27 April 2021
Recommended Age:   From 18 years
Audience:   General/trade ,  College/higher education ,  Professional and scholarly ,  ELT Advanced ,  Primary
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Judith Flanders is the author of the bestselling The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2003); A Circle of Sisters (2001), which was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award; the New York Times bestselling The Invention of Murder (2001), shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction; The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London (2012), shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times History Book of the Year; The Making of Home (2014) and Christmas, A Biography (2017). In her copious leisure time, she also writes the Sam Clair series of comic crime novels.

Reviews for A Place For Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order

The non-fiction I most enjoyed . . . an excellent subject, carried out with exemplary care and authority. -- Philip Hensher * Spectator * 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 * [An] entertaining biography . . . Following the fine tradition of light entertainment Christmas books, Judith Flanders provides lots of trivia . . . However, there is much more to it than that. 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 * A well-researched account. There are more footnotes here than there are presents under a Rockefeller Christmas tree. Indeed, the book is stuffed with facts - enough to satiate even the most ravenous postprandial taste for quizzing. * Sunday Times * Praise for Judith Flanders' previous book, Christmas: A Biography: 'A catalogue of colourful information, and as surprising an assortment of items as any you might find heaped up under a tree.' -- Lucy Hughes-Hallett * Observer * Judith Flanders has a knack for making odd subjects accessible . . . In A Place for Everything, the popular historian paints alphabetisation as one of our most radical acts. . . Flanders retains a sense of fun . . . finds contemporary resonance in humanity's search for order. * i * 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.' -- Dennis Duncan * The Spectator * One of the many fascinations of Judith Flanders's book is that it reveals what a weird, unlikely creation the alphabet is. -- Joe Moran * Guardian * A library and academic essential. -- Libby Purves * The Times * Quirky and compelling . . . She is a meticulous historian with a taste for the offbeat; the story of the alphabet suits her well . . . Fascinating. -- Dan Jones * Sunday Times * Marvellous . . . I read it with astonished delight . . . It is equally scholarly and entertaining. -- Jan Morris

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