A profound thank you to all who commented or emailed me about the illustrations to my biography. Nearly everyone expressed a preference for having them in the text as close as possible to their mention, so that is what I am going for. It’s true that I have seen some (paperback) books recently in which this is so badly done that the photos produce a kind of surrealist effect by contrast with the sharpness of the type, but it surely should be possible to achieve good resolution these days, on a decent paper? We await the results of the printers’ 16-page sample with trepidation.
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Meanwhile, I would be very interested to hear subscribers’ and visitors’ thoughts about indexes. It seems to me that there is a recent tendency to make them gigantic — perhaps because computers are now commonly involved, although plenty of sources caution against using programs except for rudimentary indexes.
I think what stupefies me most in these recent books is the level of sub-indexing. For example, the index to Jenny Uglow’s Mr Lear runs to fifteen and a half pages of small print in two columns, but the entry on Edward Lear himself runs to six pages with nineteen sub-sections! You can’t help feeling that this is for the benefit of people who don’t actually want to read the book, especially as the main sub-section is ordered chronologically as though it is a précis of Lear’s life. Well, of course, there are people who don’t want to read the whole of a biography, and I have occasionally been one myself: I have needed to go to the biography of an Edwardian painter, say, find out from the index what his relations with X were, or when he was at Y, read those sections, and read not much more before filing the work in my own biography’s bibliography…
In such cases I have always found the information I wanted through the names rather than those atomized subject indexes (‘sending money to sisters for Christmas’, ‘interest in spiders’, ‘tendency to sciatica’). If I wanted to know whether Edward Lear ever visited Malta, for instance, I would look up Malta in the main index, I would not pick my way through the knotweed of ‘Travels’. It seems to me that it is the sub-indexing that has gone mad. I thoroughly accept that an index must not just be names, it must have subjects, but I think Occam’s Razor has to be ruthlessly applied to subject indexes, and its shaving has to be guided by an informed knowledge of what the biography is really about.
So: who actually uses these detailed subject sub-indexes, and how?
Another recent biography, Helen Smith’s The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett, has an index of eleven pages of three columns, and a sub-indexed entry for Edward Garnett himself covering almost two pages. The index to Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life runs to thirty triple-columned pages! There must be vast tracts of this index that have never been wandered in.
I return to my point of whether the modern assumption behind these inflated indexes is that no-one is going to read the whole book: they will just want to find the bits that may interest them. Could this be the result of the recent tendency to gigantism in biography itself? Of course, if you read the whole of a biography, years later you might well want to locate a passage or a mention whose position you cannot find by flipping through it. My own experience in such cases is that it is almost always the name index rather than the subject index that has led me to the spot.
At the moment, the consequence for me of this thinking is that my index must be not longer than twelve book-pages of double columns, only the entries ‘George Calderon’, ‘Katharine Calderon’ and ‘Nina Corbet’ are going to be sub-indexed, and I am employing only about thirty subject keywords (‘amateurism’, ‘games’, ‘humour’ etc).
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If you write a biography, surely you want your reader to read all of it? Surely you should be writing it with a narrative shape in mind that you want your reader to complete, as it were? I know very well that there are parts of George Calderon: Edwardian Genius where some readers’ engagement will flag, but I have done my darnedest to get them through such parts to the story and its shape as a whole.
One wants a reader to read the whole of one’s narrative and remember it well enough to need the index only sparingly.
Why do big works of fiction not have indexes? Because they have concordances (e.g. Dickens, Conrad, Proust). But there is physical parturition between the works of fiction and their concordances; their creators would insist on that, I think.
How much like a work of fiction is a biography?
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When I had to produce author, place, stratigraphic and subject indexes for voluminous up-to-the-minute lists of Russian publications on the geology of the Arctic (from which we eventually made systematic thesauruses of keywords that were input with the bibliographic data and collated into the four indexes by a computer program we wrote), I treasured the rare and wonderful words that passed so briefly through my hands: Etreungtian, montmorillonite, bergy bit, tektites, pingo, dreikanter, porphyry…
But these index terms were never more than nuggets to me. Constructing the indexes to my biography has turned out to be totally different. After the handwritten terms had first been assembled and wordprocessed alphabetically, I started to go through the printout correcting, cross-referencing, improving, and suddenly I saw all the names of people — hundreds of them. As I read each name, I saw the person behind it. I had been living with these people for seven years; I knew them! I know them!
In that moment, just working on something as mundane as an index, I saw all the characters in my biography as a cloud, a world of individuals, every one of them unique, from Ada the parlour maid with no surname, to King Edward himself. But they are dead. It was truly one of those Dantean moments of ‘so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many’. Or, even, I had an experience akin to Gabriel’s at the end of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’:
Other forms were near. He had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not comprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself which these dead had one time reared and lived in was dissolving and dwindling.
It reminded me that I had not included every person’s name in the index. But they all belong to the world of George Calderon: Edwardian Genius. In that world, they are all of equal value, as we are in this one. I went back to the typescript of the book and made sure every person was translated to the index.