I don’t know about you, but when I pick a non-fiction title in a bookshop, I flick straight to the back in search of the index. It’s an old habit formed of an awareness that a well-constructed index is perhaps the most reliable and efficient means to understand what a book is really about and a good gauge of whether I’m going to enjoy it.
Indexes (not indices – that’s for mathematicians) have been around in English-language books since the sixteenth century and were, until relatively recently, an integral part of any self-respecting work of non-fiction. And yet over the course of the past year, my sense, as a writer, an editor and a reader, is that they are increasingly being seen as dispensable nice-to-haves. A couple of books I’ve ghosted and others I’ve edited have appeared without an index and, when I queried the decision, I was told that the cost couldn’t be justified.
But for some of the books I’ve worked on and read over the past five years that have been published without one, the cost wouldn’t even constitute a drop in the ocean of profit the publisher has made. By way of example, I’m reading Michael Lewis’s The Premonition – a superbly told story (no surprise there) about the people at the forefront of the US’s pandemic response. It’s selling like loo roll in 2020. It doesn’t have an index. That’s just perverse.
A good index represents outstanding value for money. Indexing is a highly skilled professional discipline and, as with everything else, you get what you pay for. Before even starting to select headwords, an indexer must have a decent understanding of the ideas the author is trying to convey, a sympathetic appreciation of the writer’s style, a tight grasp of the weight and priority given to the different arguments in the book and a forensic thoroughness to make sure that each important character, concept, event and place is included. In other words, it’s not a job that can be replicated by an algorithm – it requires human intelligence applied to a sensitive reading of the text.
But that’s not all. An index can be inventive and entertaining, as well as being supremely useful. There are famous examples of creative indexing. Paula Clarke Bain, a professional indexer, blogs about some of the funniest and most successful indexes she has encountered. One of her posts pointed me first in the direction of Francis Wheen’s Strange Days Indeed,
Falkender, Baroness (Marcia Williams): squabbles and screeches, 210-16; hates whitebait, 211, 215; takes sedatives, 215, 220; fear of military coup, 218; fear of orgies, 222, 270
Moore, Roger: regrettable lapels, 2
Morgenthau, Hans: mistaken for Robert, 97
Morgenthau, Robert: not Hans, 97
wash, reluctance to: of Lin Biao, 152-153; of Mao, 153; of American radicals, 171; of author, 272
And then she featured Charlie Brooker’s The Hell of It All,
letters of the alphabet, variously configured, 1–388
numbered pages, 1–388
random page numbers, 8, 44–9, 70, 84, 213–28, 337
words, sung aloud at Shane Richie, 149; all the remaining words in the book after that bit, 149–388
I dug a bit more and found that Lewis Carroll, unsurprisingly, had fun with an index in his novel Sylvie and Bruno,
Barometer, sideways motion of; 13
Bath, portable, for Tourists; 25
Books or minds. Which contain most Science? 21
Boots for horizontal weather; 14
Brain, inverted position of; 243
Bread-sauce. What appropriate for? 58
Happiness, excessive, how to moderate ; 159
Honesty, Dr. Watts’ argument for; 235
Horizontal rain, boots for; 14
House falling through Space, life in a; 100
Hymns appealing to selfishness; 276
If you picked up any of these in a bookshop and read those entries, you’d buy the book, wouldn’t you? There are many, many more examples.
The point is that an index is not only an extremely efficient tool for getting to grips with a book’s contents. It can also be an extension of the entertainment, an additional creative element that enhances the body of the text and potentially garners more readers.
In the course of researching this blog, I discovered that Penguin Press is publishing Index, A History of in September this year. I hope that its publication will at least provoke a bit more discussion about just how valuable a good index can be and perhaps start to reverse what I perceive to be its slight marginalisation.
If nothing else, though, I will always cherish the index in Strange Days Indeed for bringing to my attention the phrase ‘regrettable lapels’.