The Society of Indexers is celebrating its diamond anniversary in 2017 and designated 30 March as the first National Indexing Day to raise awareness of this essential profession.
The Society has seen many changes in book production and indexing methods during that time. Gone are index cards, going out are paper prints and highlighter pens, in are specialised software packages, coming in are e-pub books with linked indexes. I wonder what the next 60 years will bring?
Media coverage included an article by Society of Indexers President Sam Leith which explains a lot about what indexers do – see here. And the following week there was a podcast by Sam and Dennis Duncan discussing the history of indexing. Listen here.
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.
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.
Over the summer I’ve had the privilege of indexing two books by men who took part in World War II, and viewed their participation as a necessary interlude in their careers, not defining moments because they went on to forge careers in areas unrelated to the military. They were, perhaps, lucky to live at a time when the post-war period made opportunities for those who could seize them.
Nigel Buxton was travel writer for the Sunday Telegraph and a wine writer, and more recently appeared as BaaadDad in the Channel 4 comedy series The Adam and Joe Show. He tells of his wartime experiences and of how he came to work in Fleet Street and blog. This material has been gathered for a book that includes some of his favourite essays from the Sunday Telegraph. Nigel died at the end of November 2015 and the book makes a fitting tribute to his life.
Robert Harling was editor of House & Garden among many other things. He shared wartime experiences with Ian Fleming and became his friend, sharing holidays and meals with Ian on many occasions. Robson press published Ian Fleming: A personal memoir in October to coincide with the new Bond film Spectre.The book gives a unique perspective on an enduringly popular author and his personal life. However, as Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian, shows, Harling wasn’t entirely honest about his own life.
Both should be on the Christmas list of anyone interested in the post-war period in Britain.
Of the thousands of books that are published each year, a number are reviewed by newspapers for the general reading public and sometimes the index is so good or so bad it merits a comment from the reviewer. Even the absence of an index can generate a comment.
Here are a few published in the Guardian in the last couple of years. I’ve picked the Guardian and its Sunday equivalent the Observer because for now at least, access is free and the search produces sensible results.
Indexes that pleased the reviewer, and I could only easily find one:
Rod: The Autobiographyby Rod Stewart (Century, £20) – “It also – excellent in such a book – has a comprehensive index: “Lumley, Joanna 177-9”; “nuclear weapons 28,29”; “oral sex: Rod advised against 58; untrue stories of 232″ and so on.” Given the nature of the book with the crowd of celebrity names that makes up the backdrop to Rod’s public and private life, a thorough listing of all the people, places and events of Rod’s life would seem only right. Look inside at Amazon bears this out.
Indexes that weren’t up to the reviewer’s expectations:
Wolfby Garry Marvin (Reaktion, £9.99) – “The book’s index, sadly, is a skimpy two-page effort that is not much more useful than a single entry reading “Wolf, passim”. Look inside at Amazon indeed shows only two pages, and it is indeed a skimpy effort – there must surely be more information in the 150 pages or so of text that could be teased out into an index.
Shooting Victoriaby Paul Thomas Murphy – “Although Murphy revels in Victorian criminal trials and popular outcries, his skimpy knowledge of the administration and influence of the royal court hobbles his book. It is symptomatic that he keeps calling aristocrats by the wrong titles – the Dowager Duchess of Roxburghe is misnamed, Lord Londesborough is called Jonesborough – and further muddles them in a havoc-strewn index.” Alas this index is not available to Look inside at Amazon as I’d like to have seen what “havoc-strewn index” meant.
No index – more common and seems to have occurred in a greater range of books:
London Peculiar and Other Nonfictionedited by Michael Moorcock and Allan Kausch (Merlin Press, £17.99) – “It’s a pity there’s no index…” Indeed, how interesting it would have been to see the themes of the essays plotted out in an index to see where he returned to ideas and the extent of his topics.
Selected Poemsby Tony Harrison (Penguin, £9.99) – “…none of his stage or film verse is included here. Nor is an index, either of poems or first lines, which seems a trifle shabby.” Listing poem titles and first lines isn’t a difficult job and would definitely help the reader find their favourites.
Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub by Pete Brown (MacMillan £16.99) – “The only things that let this amiable book down slightly are the absence of an index, and the somewhat misleading title…” A book that’s packed with famous names and London history must surely be worth indexing.
Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea by Donovan Hohn (Union Books £20) – ” Here’s something original and eccentric and multi-faceted that tells you a good many interesting things about the world – and then, not having an index, maximises your chance of forgetting them.” Oh, what a shame!
Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers (Atlantic £16.99) – “… Scotty never lies. Neither does he supply his book with an index, so if you’re interested in the secret sex lives of the stars, you are going to have to search through these pages for Spence and Kate, Eddie and Wally, Randy and Cary, Rock, Ty and Noel, and Vivien Leigh …”
Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods, edited by Helen Saberi (Prospect Books) “The lack of an index in what is a scholarly work is disappointing, but this is a wonderful celebration of global food culture: detailed yet never indigestible.”
So with the exception of Rod Stewart, all of the authors of these books could have improved their reviews by having better indexes or asking for one in the first place.