Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Why Don't We See Analytical Tables of Contents Anymore?

I recall coming across older books, maybe from the late 19th or early 20th century, with very "beefy" tables of contents, in which each chapter basically has a several sentence "summary" of the arguments made inside the chapter. This practice strikes me as extremely useful, and I wondered why we don't really see these kinds of summaries anymore in most books today. So here's a brief sketch of the "analytical table of contents:"

The analytical table of contents was a prominent publishing convention in the 19th century--like commonplacebooks--primarily used in scholarly and academic works. Its purpose was to provide a detailed overview of the contents of a book, breaking down each chapter or section into smaller subtopics or themes. This allowed readers to quickly locate specific information within the text and provided a structured framework for navigating through the material.


The analytical table of contents emerged during a time when printed books were becoming more common and accessible to a wider audience. Scholars and authors recognized the need for organized navigation aids within lengthy texts to help readers efficiently access relevant information. By breaking down the content into smaller, digestible sections, the analytical table of contents catered to readers' needs for clarity and ease of reference.


The analytical table of contents typically consisted of a hierarchical structure, with main chapters or sections listed first, followed by subsections or subtopics nested beneath them. Each entry in the table was accompanied by a brief description or summary of the content it represented. This allowed readers to understand the scope of each section before delving into the details.


1. Detailed Organization: The analytical table of contents provided a comprehensive breakdown of the book's contents, offering a roadmap for navigating through complex material.

2. Descriptive Entries: Each entry in the table was accompanied by a concise description or summary, providing readers with an overview of the content covered in that section.

3. Hierarchical Structure: The table followed a hierarchical structure, with main sections at the top level and subtopics nested beneath them, allowing for easy navigation through the text.

Reasons for Decline:

Sebastian Garren quotes Mortimer Adler on the decline of the analytical table of contents in the 20th century, which can be attributed to several factors:

1. Changing Publishing Practices: With advancements in printing technology and the rise of mass-market publishing, there was a shift towards more streamlined and cost-effective publishing practices. This led to a reduction in the use of elaborate navigational aids like the analytical table of contents.

2. Evolving Reader Preferences: As reading habits evolved and readers became more accustomed to skimming and scanning text, the need for detailed navigational aids diminished. Readers began to rely more on indexes, glossaries, and electronic search functions to locate specific information within a text.

3. Shift in Writing Styles: The analytical table of contents was closely associated with academic and scholarly writing styles prevalent in the 19th century. As writing styles evolved over time, authors began to adopt more concise and reader-friendly formats, reducing the need for elaborate navigational aids.

So what if we wanted to "go retro" and create such a section in a longer form document? Below is a stab at the process:

Creating an Analytical Table of Contents:

To replicate the practice of creating an analytical table of contents, one could follow these steps:

1. Read and Analyze the Text: Thoroughly read the text to identify the main chapters or sections and their respective subtopics or themes.

2. Develop a Hierarchy: Organize the content into a hierarchical structure, with main chapters or sections at the top level and subtopics nested beneath them.

3. Write Descriptive Entries: For each entry in the table, write a brief description or summary of the content it represents. Ensure that the descriptions accurately reflect the scope and content of each section.

4. Format the Table: Format the table in a clear and organized manner, using indentation or bullet points to indicate the hierarchical structure. Consider using headings, subheadings, and formatting techniques to make the table visually appealing and easy to navigate.

5. Include Page Numbers: For print publications, include page numbers for each entry in the table to help readers locate the corresponding content within the text.

By following these steps, one can create an analytical table of contents that replicates the structure and function of this 19th-century publishing convention, providing readers with a detailed overview of the text's contents and facilitating easy navigation through the material.

It's an idea old enough to seem new!

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