Monthly Archives: September 2014

Book awards season is about to start again

Last year I reviewed a number of books which had been nominated for prestigious book awards to see if the indexes were any good. Many were good, most were poor to awful. This year I’m trying again and taking on the long lists to check out the quality of the indexes.

Samuel Johnson Prize 2014 has announced its long list here. A quick look on Amazon showed that three of the books haven’t been published yet, so I can’t comment on those by Atul Gawande, Alison Light and Jenny Uglow. I have high hopes for Jenny’s book as I own a couple of her books and at least one is indexed by a member of the Society of Indexers . Some don’t have look inside available for the print version on Amazon, so I can’t comment yet on those by John Carey, Marion Coutts and Helen Macdonald.

Of those that do have look inside, I found three without indexes, those by Henry Marsh, Jonathan Meades and Ben Watts. The book by Jonathan Meades is a kind of encyclopaedia and appears in alphabetical order so maybe that’s the reason for not having one. The others don’t seem to have an excuse.

Of the others I found one with an index by a member of the Society of Indexers, Adam Nicholson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters was indexed by Hilary Bird. Well done Hilary!

The rest were mostly disappointing, to the extent that if you bought them in electronic format the Ctrl+F function would be much more use than the index is in the print version.

Without reading the books and using the indexes it is difficult to see if they are accurate of course. However, indexers need to make indexes that readers can use easily to find things they want to know. Two points stand out from the indexes I’ve looked at that make them hard for users to find anything they want to know. They are:

  • Long undifferentiated strings of locators. No reader wants to plough though over 20 entries to find one they might be looking for. Take a look at the index to Roy Jenkins by John Campbell here, and the entry for James Callaghan, there are about 30 before you get to the subheadings.
  • Run on subheadings in biographical works are almost impossible to use to find anything useful, they just don’t stand out enough. It is space-saving but not a good deal for the reader. The index to God’s Traitors by Jessie Childs shows many examples and the indexer has fallen into the trap of trying to rewrite the book in the index, without trying to work out what the reader might be looking for in the index.

So if you want a decent index, please find someone to do it who is qualified, experienced in the area that you’re writing about and is a member of the Society of Indexers, or an equivalent society if from overseas. To find out more about what indexers do, look here.

Indexing – finding personal and local links in books

I’ve been busy during the first part of September completing indexes for two books of local history. Not necessarily local to me, but it was interesting to find local or personal connections in both.

First was Jeremy Higgins’ “Great War Railwaymen” published by Uniform Press. A fascinating insight into the too numerous to mention men who left their railway jobs to fight in World War I. Surprisingly, not all of them worked on the railways during the war. If you liked Michael Portillo’s recent television series, this book will interest you. This book is also raising money for the Army Benevolent Fund, the Soldiers’ Charity and Railway Benevolent Fund. The local connection here was the fact that one of the first soldiers discussed lived in a house less than two miles away from mine and worked for the railway in Wolverton. The book is also dedicated to soldiers who died on Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, and I’m proud to number my nephew Ben among those who served and came home safely.

Next was David G. Wood and Richard Walsh’s “The Prowess of Charlie Fielder“. The Prowess was a merchant cargo vessel that moved liquid cargoes of oils and molasses between many ports, but mainly in the east of England and Holland, in the 1920s and 30s. One of the seamen, Charles Fielder, kept a detailed log of all the trips he made and the problems they encountered. They have my admiration for working so very hard, and it’s a glimpse into a lost world. The book is published by Chaffcutter books. My personal link to this book was a little more tenuous but reading it added some colour to work I’ve been doing on my family history. My great grandfather and my grandfather both worked on various docks around England, and the shipyard in Rosyth, as stationary engine drivers, loading and unloading cargo for different businesses. My grandfather served in World War I on the docks at Boulogne moving the materials which supported the army in France, which was a neat link back to the Great War Railwaymen book.

Promoting your book – don’t forget the index!

One of the fun things about being an indexer is being invited along to launch events and other activities related to the books you index. Last night I went to Oxford to hear Carlton Reid talk about Roads were NOT built for cars to Cyclox, a cycle campaign group. And, of course, it was a great talk. However, one of Carlton’s selling points for his book is …. the index. Look, he’s put it on a little promo card that he hands out.


And as he’s sold out of the first printing of the book already, it must work, right?

Great to be in Oxford as always. The location of the talk, St Michael’s in the Northgate, was the church where my marriage banns were read out. But I wasn’t married there. Cycling in Oxford is something touched with sadness for me because, just after I left, my ex-flat-mate was killed while riding her bike near Magdalen College. So if any of the campaigning that Cyclox do stops another death of a young person, it will have been worth it.