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A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order (2020), by Judith Flanders - A Book Review

Judith Flanders,A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order (2020) describes the evolving idea of alphabetical ordering of large amounts of knowledge and information for sharing with others.  Alphabetical sorting is but one of several means of sorting information, but  this sorting method is increasingly dominant and successful as an organizing mechanism.

Alphabetical ordering is a method of sorting large quantities of information, not a goal.  Alphabetization is one of many sorting methods (categorical, geographical, chronological, theological, hierarchical), but, in human history, it was long invisible, overlooked, undervalued, automatic, unquestioned, and preeminently used above other sorting methods.  Of all the sorting methods, alphabetization is preeminent in universal accessibility.  Not perfect, but best.  Alphabetical sorting and sharing method is comparable to writing, double-entry bookkeeping, printing, telegraph, and computer as a key human advancement in accessing and in transmitting information.

The time scope of this book is 2000 BCE to the present time in Europe and the Anglo-American world.  The author’s focus is on Europe. The contributions of people in Asia and Africa are lightly addressed. The author includes a helpful timeline of major developments in the information sorting story from 5000 BCE to the present, but it is weaker in the 20th century.

The book’s title need not include “curious” to describe the story of alphabetical sorting, leaving that judgment to the reader. “Curious” may better be “unanticipated” or “halting.” The story meanders, reflecting the groping universal human efforts to find a way of ordering written knowledge for sharing with others.

The table of contents is useful, with explanatory chapter headings. The index is adequate. (There is no index reference to Spain, but Phillip II of Spain is indexed).  The endnotes are clear and with interesting comments and facts. The bibliography is exhaustive. The book includes a selection of color photos to punctuate the text. The author’s book jacket photo appears initially as severe and off-putting in contrast to the engaging text of the book.  The photo also has the quality of a renaissance portrait.  The book bears a beautiful book jacket.  The book is attractive to hold.

Quakers: The book contains no reference to Quakers and does not address religion in general.  However, there is extensive attention to the Roman Catholic role in the information sorting story, primarily through the experience of the monastic Benedictine role.

Quakers, like all religions, create big categories, like Faith and Practice.  Quakers divide Faith into categories of God, Spirit, Seed.  Quakers divide Practice testimonies into subcategories, like SPICE TEAS*.  When neutral sorting mechanisms, like alphabetization are avoided, implications of purpose, priority and bias subtly appear and dominate continuing revelation. Quakers should watch their evolving categories and sorting methods.  

The advent of computers provides opportunity for rethinking sorting of knowledge and sharing information. See Youtube, “Trillions of Questions: No Easy Answers” at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tFq6Q_muwG0 



  • How do humans best label and categorize the growing human knowledge?
  • What processes  do Quakers employ to label categories of Quaker information and spiritual knowledge?


  •  A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, Judith Flanders (Basic Books, 2020)
  • Trillions of Questions: No Easy Answers [Video] (YouTube, 2020)



Quakers sort Quaker insights with memory aids, like SPICETEAS, implying a purpose or priority among the testimonies:

1.     S: Simplicity: time, priorities, things

2.     P: Peace:  Conflict management

3.     I: Integrity: consistency of belief about reality and practice

4.     C: Community:  Democracy. Citizen participation in decisions affecting their lives.  Consensus building infrastructure

5.     E:  Equality: Age, race, gender, class

6.     T: Truth: Honesty, questioning discernment, education and self-education

7.     E: Environment:  Physical environment in scope (Cosmos/universe/galaxy/earth) 

8.     A: Action: Advocacy at all levels (individual to cosmos). Legacy sharing financial and time. Work (vocation business private business and public service)

9.     S: Stillness: Silence in worship/ The other side of silence.  Beyond the edge.  Discernment clarity

Alphabetical sorting would likely eliminate the purpose or priority as AEECIPST.

Consider the process of naming a Quaker testimony of Empowerment (“The Case for a Testimony of Empowerment” by Robert Henry, Friends Journal (December 2020) p. 26f.


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