Category Archives: Indexes reviewed

100 best non-fiction books – The Year of Magical Thinking

For 2016 Author Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the 100 best non-fiction books. These are “key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are”, in the Anglo-American English language tradition, the list covers “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture”.

Indexers love lists too, usually of words to put into indexes. So I thought I’d run a parallel list and take a look, where possible, inside the books at the indexes.

The second summary is of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Amazon usefully allows us to ‘look inside this volume. It doesn’t have an index, so what can I say about it?

This is a very intimate and personal memoir of a difficult time. The book is non-fiction because it is ‘a true story’ that happened to someone. In this case the editor deciding on whether to include an index would have to consider whether readers would want to be able to consult different parts of the book. What questions might they have? Which friends are mentioned? Which hospital/s was her daughter treated in? What medical treatments are suggested and given? What emotions does the author describe? Is this enough to warrant the inclusion of an index? In this case, perhaps not because of the personal nature of the story.

Not all non-fiction needs an index but the decision has to be taken carefully. In memoirs it is often the case that the author has dropped the names of everyone they ever met, places they went, food they ate, and things they did. But a book like this dealing with an episode in a person’s life don’t fall into that category.

 

100 best non-fiction books – The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Newspapers love lists of books, usually in the form of end-year-round-ups of best-selling and notable new books. However, for 2016 Author Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the 100 best non-fiction books. These are “key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are”, in the Anglo-American English language tradition, the list covers “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture”.

Indexers love lists too, usually of words to put into indexes. So I thought I’d run a parallel list and take a look, where possible, inside the books at the indexes.

The first summary was published today, 1st February 2016 and he chose The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Amazon usefully allows us to ‘look inside’ this volume. It does have an index, so what can I say about it?

  • It’s a book of over 300 pages, so it is a little disappointing to find an index of about 11 pages. A rule of thumb is about 5% of the pages should be index. So maybe it’s a bit skimpy, I can’t tell without reading the book.
  • The index is in set-out layout, with indented sub-headings one under another. This is generally a good thing as it is easier on the reader’s eye to see what is in those subheadings.
  • Headings include names of people, organisations, animals, plants and subjects, which is a good range of coverage.
  • Where species are named, they have been given separate sub-headings under the main heading. In some cases this gives lots of sub-entries with information all on the same page, which looks a little odd and strings out entries which could have been more compact. Would a reader looking up ‘worms’ want to differentiate between ‘burrowing’ and ‘earthworms’ before heading into the text? Maybe, maybe not. The rule of thumb is more than five locators could be split down into subheadings, but in this case they have been consistent.
  • Some headings have gathered longer strings of locators, for example ‘dinosaurs’ has 12 locators. Without subheadings we don’t know what she says about those dinosaurs.
  • Headings often have locators and sub-headings. This isn’t wrong as my indexing software tells me it is when I start editing a draft of an index, but if a heading justifies having any sub-headings, it can be more useful for the reader to have all the locators entered into sub-headings, especially if there are more than five locators at the main heading. The locators at the main heading are sometimes the most important parts, sometimes they are the most minor ones that don’t fit with the sub-headings. The reader doesn’t know which they are and it can be frustrating. If space and time are not an issue it can be good to clear the locators away from the main heading into sub-headings or reduce them to the main entries only and highlight them if possible.

Looking at indexes by other people always makes me think about how I would approach a similar text. Writing an index is an art as well as a skill, and we are often constrained by time, money, space and the requirements of the press or the author. Every indexer will create a slightly different index, for any given text.

Samuel Johnson Prize 2014 – shortlisted books

The shortlist was announced on 9th October 2014.

What about the indexes? All the books, so far as I can see actually have indexes, but I couldn’t look at Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk or Marion Coutts’ The Iceberg

What are the issues? Are any of the indexes any good?

  • 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.
  • Improperly formed headings and subheadings. Well-formed subheadings divide all the locators for a particular heading into useful subheadings and don’t leave long strings of locators stranded at the heading. You might sometimes get locators at the main heading, but they should just be the main and most significant entries, and the subheadings can group up the more scattered locators. Take a look at the index to Empire of Necessity by Greg Grandin here, and see the entries for Argentina on the first page of the index. There are nine locators at the main heading and three subheadings that seem to cover very similar ground.
  • Not helping the reader round the text. Cross references, those see or see also entries are there to be used in circumstances that help the reader. Take a look at the index to Caroline Moorehead’s Village of Secrets here. Under the entry for Jews there are lots and lots of locators, subheadings and cross references from subheadings to main entries. That’s OK, of course, if there’s too much for a subheading and a main entry would be a better place to start looking. However, entries such as “concentration camps sent to see under individual camp name” and “internment camps within France [lots of locators] see also under individual camp name” are not much use if you don’t know the name of the camps. You could look for a main entry of “concentration camps” or “internment camps” but there isn’t one, so you’re still stuck. See under is also a form of cross reference we’re  not encouraged to use these days. See is enough to send you where you need to go, and see also will get you related information.

Useful indexes can only be compiled by experienced indexers who know the rules and how to construct headings that help readers. If you’re an author or editor you can find UK indexers here, why not find one with experience in the subject area the book is writing about. It will help sell your book and please your readers. I’d be happy to help as well.

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    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.

    St Ermin’s Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award 2014

    Digging a trench through the rich strata of annual non-fiction book prizes I stumbled upon the St Ermin’s Hotel Intelligence Book of the Year Award. The prize is awarded yearly to the best new intelligence book.  The recipient this year was:

    • Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain, by Christopher Moran, published by Cambridge University Press. The index has the many names of the people who appear in the book, and places and countries and various scandals. However, there are great long strings of locators next to some of the headings, for example ‘Bletchley Park’ gets 15 so we don’t know if it talks about code-breaking the computers or the staff. Then ‘Brook, Norman’ gets 20, I don’t know who he was or what he did but might stand a chance if there were some subheadings. On the next page I spotted ‘Churchill, Winston’ who had accrued 54 locators scattered throughout 300 pages, plus some subheadings for his writings. From reading the index, whatever secrets are in this book are not revealed by the index.

    Also nominated for the prize were:

    • The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston, published by Aurum Press. Another index in set-out layout, with a few subheadings, but again it suffers from long strings of locators. By way of example I offer ‘KGB’ for which I counted 38 locators scattered throughout the book. As this is a sort of biography or personal history the reader might have expected the lengthy entry about the subject to be entered in the order in which they occurred to the subject, however they appear in alphabetical order in which ‘divorce’ appears before ‘marriages’.
    • SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-45 by Peter Matthews, published by the History Press. This index starts with ‘Arbwehr’ which has 25 locators. Consisting of only two pages out of 250 I suspect it is also rather skimpy. The rule of thumb is 5% which would give us 12 pages of index if it had met that target. Indexes can be longer or shorter, but as this one has many examples of long lists of locators it could have been teased out into several more pages if the subheadings had been formed correctly.

    So, three books on intelligence and secrets which keep their secrets close to their chests courtesy of three unprofessional indexes. This is a shame as each of these titles has been worked on hard and long by their authors.

     

     

    Society for Theatre Research – Book Prize 2013

    The Society for Theatre Research drew up this shortlist from books published in 2013 and the prize was awarded in May 2014. With titles from two specialist theatre-publishers, a main-line publisher with a drama list, an overseas academic publisher, and a small independent press, and from historical overviews to personal memoir, technique of performance and esoteric study, the short list conveniently demonstrated the range of books submitted for the prize. So what of the indexes?

    The National Theatre Story  by Daniel Rosenthal (Oberon) was the winner of the prize. Amazon could not furnish a Look Inside so I can’t comment on this book, yet.

    The Other National Theatre: 350 Years of Shows in Drury Lane by Robert Whelan (Jacob Tonson).

    • There is an index, there are lots of names of people, such as actors, playwrights and their financial backers.
    • There are very few ‘subjects’ other than these. I might have hoped for something about ‘musicals’, or ‘female authors’ or ‘comic opera’ or ‘pantomimes’, but they aren’t there.
    • As a reader you’d have to know who wrote which play as the plays are not entered separately, only by their author. However, there are some entries for modern musicals such as My Fair Lady, but no entry for Lerner and Loewe.
    • There are some long strings of locators against some of the names, which are then followed by some subheadings with only one or two locators. More effort could have been made to analyse the main heading locators and create more or better subheadings.
    • The earls and dukes of Bedford get their own main heading, with the various earls and dukes listed in the order in which they appear in the book. There is no cross-reference from ‘Russell’, so you’d have to know where to look for these chaps.
    • The layout is almost set-out but there is no indent when the lines turnover to indicate that this is the same heading, which makes reading the entries a little tricky.
    • There are few cross-references, and the entry for ‘women on the stage’ has only one locator, yet there several for Nell Gwynne and no cross-reference.
    • So it’s a big book, but the index doesn’t really help you see what it is about. At over 500 pages of text, an index of only 10 pages is too skimpy by far, as a rule of thumb, 5% should make a reasonable index length, so I’d hope for at least 25 pages for this one, maybe more. Perhaps they were constrained by the printer, but it was definitely detrimental to the book to have such a short index.

    Speaking the Speech  by Giles Block (Nick Hern Books). Alas, no Look Inside.

    Stage Blood  by Michael Blakemore (Faber & Faber). Kindle only today.

    Wooden Os: Shakspeare’s Theatres and England’s Trees  by Vin Nardizzi (University of Toronto Press)

    Without the Look Inside indexes on Amazon how are they ever going to sell these volumes?