Category Archives: 2013

Amazon and the ‘see inside’ function – now you see it, now you don’t

The winner of the FT and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award for 2013 was Brad Stone’s book about Amazon. I haven’t read the book but you can get a feel for it from the trail the FT gives for it here.

No-one would argue that Amazon has transformed the way we buy, read and use books. Also doubtless there are students writing theses about the various social and business implications of how Amazon has influenced the book industry and associated activities, such as studying, writing and publishing.

I’d just like to focus for a few seconds on the ‘look inside’ feature which allows potential buyers to browse inside books. Most usefully, when this feature is activated there is quite a lot material available to the potential purchaser, and it often includes the index. I have referred to many such indexes while I have been looking at potentially award-winning books. However, in many cases you only get to look at the Kindle version of the book, and as the Kindle version doesn’t carry an index, you can’t see the index for the physical book, even if that was the version you wanted to buy.

As a member of the Society of Indexers I have to say that pretty much all non-fiction books should have an index, and the presence of a good index can be a selling point when it comes to deciding to buy a book. However, wilfully restricting the access of potential buyers to the ‘view inside’ without an index may mean that said buyers will not continue to value indexes, not require them or demand them in books and instead be content to buy e-books without proper indexes. If you are someone who likes to see the index when you ‘look inside’ and you get frustrated when it isn’t there, please make your feelings known to Amazon by using the ‘feedback’ button on the Amazon Reader page for the book you are looking at.

The future of non-fiction electronic publishing is not cut and dried, there’s a long way to go yet. There is a lot of information about the efforts of the Society of Indexers and others on the Publishing Technology Group‘s website. Its remit is to advise Society of Indexers members, publishers and authors on reconciling powerful text retrieval techniques with emerging delivery technologies in publishing.

what would we do without …..?

the Internet? and indexes?

I’ve been managing without the Internet since Sunday, but fortunately the BT man fixed ours today and I’m back. Lack of the wherewithal at the weekend meant I missed catching up with blogging some indexing things.

The Samuel Johnson Prize was won by Lucy Hughes-Hallett and her book, The Pike, which is  about Gabriele D’Annunzio. You can see the comments I made about the index to this book on my previous post here. Well done to Lucy for her win, and I hope all the team who contributed to the book, including the indexer, took time to bathe in the reflect glow from the prize.

The other prizes I wrote about recently will be awarded over the next couple of weeks, so let’s hope one with a great index also wins those categories, although there’s a chance that a book without an index could win too!

So what would we do without indexes?

The most fundamental thing is that readers of books without indexes won’t know what is inside the book, except in the most general terms. I’ve been practising my indexing skills on a book of essays about cycling and I’m astounded by the sheer number of names that get dropped by all the authors, even when the article is ostensibly about someone or something else. More on this book another time, as I’ve not finished the index yet.

You can read more about why books need indexes over here at the Society of Indexers. While some of these quotes are a few years old now and you might think that e-books can do without an index because you can easily search a book, take a look at this page which talks about why human indexers do a better job than text searches. In these days of time-poor readers, having someone else fillet the bones out of a book and make a proper index surely makes sense?

more on Mortimer Wheeler

Going a bit off-topic with this, but I have been surprised to see how many people draw inspiration from the old chap, even though he died in 1976.

Draw was the correct term to use for this cartoon from the Institute of Archaeology:

Moshenska, G and Salamunovich, A 2013. Wheeler at War. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23(1):12,

and this cartoon about his moustache and a pun on the term EDM

followed by this cartoon about his pipe

However, the old chap was no slouch at illustration himself  having first considered a career in art and been influential in the development of archaeological illustration techniques, and I hope he’d be pleased that people are still inspired to draw him.

singer Morrissey writes autobiography – and omits index

I usually wake up to Radio 4’s Today programme. All too often as with most news it is all doom, gloom and tragedy. However, yesterday morning I surfaced just before the brief item about the launch of the singer Morrissey’s autobiography and my ears pricked up when they mentioned it was published without an index. There are many other reasons that this book is newsworthy:

  • Penguin has published it as a ‘Classic’ along with the ancient writers, Louisa May Alcott and the rest – so bold because while there are those fans who claim his music as having greatness the quality of his writing was less certain
  • There are no chapters – so maybe it is more fiction than non-fiction?
  • The opening paragraph goes on a bit over four and half pages
  • There’s masses of name dropping and he says what he thinks about an awful lot of people
  • He’s written about relationships which interested his fans for many years.

But as an indexer I have to say it was a brave choice on someone’s part to leave out the index altogether. Of course, it means people have to read the whole thing to pick out nuggets about other celebrities and whatever else he has written about so getting information out as ‘news’ took longer than it should, but really, is leaving it out serving the audience in the longer term? As with Mortimer Wheeler and his teachers and contemporaries in my previous blog, it is those very celebrities and people he has worked with, had relationships of any kind with, the songs he’s written, and the music industry players who have affected him, who will be sought after by readers in the future. Valuable information may be easily missed by people who don’t have the time or inclination to read the book to extract every scrap that could so easily have been done by an indexer.

[Edit May 2014] Here’s a fan’s index that can be searched online by keyword. It’s not an analytical index in the true sense, but a labour of love that might be useful. Unfortunately you can’t print it out either.

“Still Digging” Mortimer Wheeler’s memoirs and deep echoes from the past

This was the title of Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s ‘memoirs’, first published in 1955 and it is a book I really ought to have read a very long time ago. Somewhere, quite a while ago because I can’t remember where or when, I bought a copy of the Reader’s Union edition published in 1956. It’s the kind of book I like to read today as it recalls a time that’s so very long lost. In the early part he reminisces about his early days in Edinburgh, Bradford and London, at the tail end of the 19th century and before the first World War. To establish his place among the great and the good he drops the names of his contemporaries who later become somebodies, and lecturers and teachers who were academics and teachers of note at the time. Unfortunately, many of those ‘somebodies’ haven’t lasted as household names into the early 21st century. That or I am irredeemably ignorant about some topics. Sadly from the indexing point of view, the edition I have is totally devoid of an index, so if I were researching those contemporaries and teachers I’d be having to read the whole book to find out who he’d named in the book.

As one of the early popularisers of archaeology to the masses, Mortimer Wheeler directly or indirectly influenced many of today’s media-friendly archaeologists. A quick Google shows that the following people have reason to be directly grateful to him even though they hadn’t or couldn’t have met him at the critical point in their lives when they decided to become archaeologists (there are doubtless many others and many who did work with Mortimer and his wife Tessa):

  • Barry Cunliffe – Emeritus Professor of Archaeology at Oxford University (and my tutor when I took my MPhil)
  • Paul Blinkhorn  – Anglo-Saxon pottery specialist often seen on Time Team
  • Colin Merrony – Teaching Fellow at Sheffield University
  • John Swogger – archaeological illustrator

Should any of the people whose lives were touched by Mortimer Wheeler at a critical point come to write and publish their memoirs, I sincerely hope they will have their books properly indexed. Sadly, the life of Mortimer’s wife, Tessa by Lydia Carr, was not provided with an expert index, as you can see inside with Amazon. This index suffers from the following issues:

  • there are many undifferentiated locators after some of the headings – for example the entry for ‘Hawkes, Jacquetta’ gets 24 page numbers, but 6 is usually the maximum before splitting down.
  • some headings have several subheadings but there is relatively little material to cover and some of those subheadings could be done away with – for example the entry for ‘Carleon’ has two subheadings for site reports that both refer to the same pages.
  • cross-references that were misused – for example the entry for ‘Carleon’ says ‘see also Isca’ [Isca Augusta being the Latin name for the military site] but there is no entry for ‘Isca’
  • there could have been a useful double entry for Agatha Miller under ‘Christie, Agatha’ because many people will know that Agatha Christie was married to an archaeologist, Max Mallowan, but few will know her maiden name was Miller before she became Christie. If the book discusses her as Miller, that’s fine, but to make it more accessible the double entry would have been helpful

Those things aside, the book has received some good reviews, so maybe I’ll read it after I’ve finished with her husband.

changing and different meanings of the word ‘index’

First stop  – the Oxford Concise English Dictionary 1976 edition that I used at school, with my thoughts in [square brackets]

1) Index finger – forefinger – used for pointing [I like this use of the word index because a book index shows you what is in a book and what is important]

2) (On instrument) – pointer showing value of quantity or position on scale etc  [a book index doesn’t assign value to information, but it does pick out the important information]

3) Index number – quantity indicating relative level of prices or wages at a particular date compared with that at a date taken as standard. [This is one definition that has found a lot of new uses in recent years – Global Peace Index, Social Progress Index, and Human Development Index just three among many.]

4) Number expressing physical property etc in terms of a standard (refractive index)

5) Guiding principle; thing pointing to a conclusion [again a useful thing to bear in mind about book indexes, picking out the important things and showing where they are]

6) Alphabetical list, usu. at end of book, and verb to make the index [The OED gives 1578 as the earliest use in this sense]

7) Historical use – list of books forbidden to Roman Catholics, or to be read by them only in expurgated editions. [This was new to me when I looked today so I took a deeper look – this dates from the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century and continued until the last publication in 1948 and was abolished in 1966. So a defunct use of the word and you can take a look at the list of books and authors here.]

8) Typographical – Hand shaped symbol used to draw attention to note etc

9) Mathematical – Exponent

Second stop – OED online to look at new uses of the word index that weren’t included in the 1976 published dictionary

Computing. A set of items each of which specifies one of the records of a file and contains information about its address (first found in 1962 but not relevant enough for the 1976 school dictionary)

index-link   v.  [as a back-formation] (trans.) to make dependent on such an index (i.e wages and pensions – index-linked was first recorded from 1970)

index plate – car number plate (another 1970s term that I don’t think we use these days)

So the language continues to evolve – I wonder what uses the word might be put to in future?

Great British Bake Off and cookery book indexing

I spend a lot of time baking and also run another blog about my experiences, both good and bad. I also like watching the BBC series Great British Bake Off and like getting ideas for my own baking from the programmes. Recently they have looked at some of the oldest cookery books in England and recently included the book written by Richard II’s cook, usually called The Forme of Cury. It is reckoned to be England’s oldest cookery book and is kept in the John Rylands Library Medieval Collection in Manchester. Here’s a link to the index

Rather lovely isn’t it? But really, it is just a list of recipes in the book, not even in alphabetical order. All too often this is all that modern cookery books contain too, but you can get better treatment if you’re prepared to put in a bit of effort. Like baking really.  A great cookery book index gives the user a chance to find out which recipes have the ingredients they want to use. One of my favourite baking books is Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet.

If you take a look inside on the Amazon page you can find the index and see the following:

  • There’s a heading for each ingredient that lists all the recipes that contain that ingredient, for example “absinth” is found in one recipe for ‘Green fairy cakes, and “ale” is found in 11 recipes ranging from bread and rolls, to beef pies and Christmas pudding.
  • The index uses bold text for the ingredients and the recipe names, which are also given an initial capital so they stand out nicely.
  • There’s some useful cross references, for example “Cupcakes, see also muffins and fairy cakes” – subtle differences in baking methods mean that the recipes are filed in the correct place. But all cookies are filed under “biscuits” for simplicity.
  • Other cross references include some see references, for example “almond paste, see marzipan”.
  • Alternative ingredients, for example lemon marmalade in marmalade flapjacks instead of orange marmalade also get their own, non-bold entry.
  • Additional information included in the recipe introductions are also given entries, for example “kourambiedes  241” – leads to a recipe for “Orange almond butter biscuits” with the information that these are similar to the Greek cookies called kourambiedes, which are made without the orange.

Not only is the index fantastic, the recipes are great too.