Cogitations of an indexer

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.

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13 Responses to Cogitations of an indexer

  1. Paul Johnson says:

    Perhaps the indexing issue is best resolved by considering the intended readership – whether the book is mainly going to be enjoyed as a once-off good read, rather than for reference, and whether those who enjoy it will, to any extent, want to go back to the text and find details of dates etc.. Often I’ve found myself with a good biography to hand but have found it easier to check a detail more readily on the web.

    • Patrick Miles says:

      You have put your finger on it, Paul. Thank you. The intended/unavoidable readership is that dreaded thing, ‘hybrid’. The swelling ranks of young Russianists working on Anglo-Russian cultural contacts are just yearning to read all that fresh research on George in Russia and Chekhov, some historians can’t wait to read about George’s Communitarianism and anti-suffragism, quite a few may go for Ypres and Gallipoli. However, the interest of the book as a whole is meant to be ‘human’, i.e. in George and Kittie’s lives. Index-wise, then, I think I must go for a ‘hybrid’, aka compromise! I have been working on it again this morning and it has expanded to thirteen double-column printed pages: enough, I think…

  2. Clare Hopkins says:

    I’m afraid my thoughts about indexes are not very profound – but may I share a favourite example of how probably best not to do it? Below is an extract from the index to J. Horace Round’s Feudal England (1895). Specifically, the longest single entry, that for Edward Augustus Freeman, Oxford’s Regius Professor of Modern History 1884-92. This plethora of sub-entries – well, they speak for themselves.

    Freeman, Professor: unacquainted with the Inq. Com. Cant. 4; ignores the Northamptonshire geld-roll 149; confuses the Inquisitio geldi 148; his contemptuous criticism 150, 337, 385, 434, 454-5; when himself in error 151; his charge against the Conqueror 152, 573; on Hugh d’Envermeu 159; on Hereward 160-4; his “certain” history 323, 433; his “undoubted history” 162, 476; his “facts” 436; on Heming’s cartulary 169; on Mr. Waters 190; on the introduction of feudal tenures 227-31, 260, 267-72, 301, 306; on the knight’s fee 234; on Ranulf Flambard 228; on the evidence of Domesday 229-31; underrates feudal influence 247, 536-8; on scutage 268; overlooks the Worcester relief 308; influenced by words and names 317, 338; on Normans under Edward 318 sqq.; his bias 319, 394-7; on Richard’s castle 320 sqq.; confuses individuals 323-4, 386, 473; his assumptions 323; on the name Alfred 327; on the Sheriff Thorold 328-9 ; on the battle of Hastings 332 sqq,; his pedantry 334-9; his “palisade” 340 sqq., 354, 370, 372, 387, 391, 403; misconstrues his Latin 343, 436; his use of Wace 344-7, 348, 352, 355, 375; on William of Malmesbury 346, 410-14, 440 ; his words suppressed 347, 393; on the Bayeux Tapestry 348-51; imagines facts 352, 370, 387, 432; his supposed accuracy 353, 354, 384, 436-7, 440, 446, 448; right as to the shield-wall 354-8 ; his guesses 359, 362, 366, 375, 378-9, 380, 387, 389, 433-5, 456, 462; his theory of Harold’s defeat 360, 380-1; his confused views 364-5, 403, 439, 446, 448; his dramatic tendency 365-6; evades difficulties 373, 454; his treatment of authorities 376-7, 449-51; on the relief of Arques 384; misunderstands tactics 381-3, 387; on Walter Giffard 385-6; his failure 388; his special weakness 388, 391; his splendid narrative 389, 393; his Homeric power 391; on Harold and his Standard 402-3; on Wace 404-6, 409; on Regenbald 425 ; on Earl Ralf 428 ; on William Malet 430; on the Conqueror’s earldoms 429; his Domesday errors and confusion 151, 425, 428, 436-7, 445-8, 463; on “the Civic League” 433-5; his wild dream 438; his special interest in Exeter 43 1; on legends 441; on Thierry 451, 458; his method 454-5; on Lisois 460 ; on Stigand 461; on Walter Tirel 476-7; on St. Hugh’s action [1197] 528; on the Winchester Assembly 535-8; distorts feudalism 537; on the king’s court 538; on Richard’s change of seal 540; necessity of criticising his work, xi., 353.

    [No, of course I didn’t type this up; it’s online.]

  3. John Dewey says:

    Ah, indexes: what happy memories (!). My son offered to produce one for my Tyutchev biography with a computer programme, but I was very doubtful. What about people such as Ivan and Aleksandr Turgenev, often referred to simply by their surname in the text (where it’s clear from the context which one is meant)? Or those mentioned under their first name, or as ‘his brother’, ‘her old friend’, ‘the foreign minister’, etc.? I decided to revert to pre-computer methods, armed myself with 26 sheets of A4 labelled A to Z, and went through the typescript, adding names and page references as they appeared. I suppose a card index would be the more usual procedure, but that seemed somehow even fiddlier. I also decided against a general index, adopting the common continental practice of names only. I’m sure you’re right that these provide a more direct route to information than vague categories such as ‘Censorship’, ‘Paris’ or ‘Train travel’. For the same reason I did without sub-indexes, relenting only in the case of Tyutchev himself, for whom a few of the most important themes of his life are included. I also prepared a separate index of poem titles and first lines, which I thought necessary for the biography of a poet. I have to say it was a few months of some of the most soul-destroying work I’ve ever had to do.

    I do think that some sort of index is necessary (and not just because those months at the coal face would otherwise have been spent in vain). Like you, I’d prefer everyone to read my book from cover to cover, but we surely have to accept that for many the product of our labours will be no more than a research tool, to be dipped into for specific information. I’ve certainly lost count of the number of books I’ve used in that way myself.

    Incidentally, were you ever as puzzled as I was at the lack of indexes in Soviet (pre-Gorbachev) publications? A Russian once explained this to me as a requirement of the censorship authorities. I found this hard to believe – but then, as we know, in Russia improbability and the truth have always gone hand in hand. One can only assume the censors had a paranoid fear of dissidents beavering away in secret at indexes to collect and collate dossiers of information harmful to the state. Thinking about it, there’s something so deeply satisfying about the idea of indexes being subversive that it makes the whole dreary process of compiling them seem worthwhile!

    • Patrick Miles says:

      I have enjoyed this Comment tremendously, John. Thank you kindly.

      In fact, I had a look at the indexes of Mirror of the Soul before I embarked on my task, and was mightily impressed. It is intriguing that you too took 26 sheets of A4 as your limit (although I did not have one for each letter), and did it all by hand. Normally, I think one could expect this to come out at about 13 pages of double-columned printed index, but yours came out at 19 because you added a few words or lines of identification (‘General and statesman with extensive responsibility for military affairs under Alexander I’ etc). I must say, I take my hat off to you for your patience, and this addition must explain (plus the indexes of Tyutchev’s poems in both languages, of course) why it took you a ‘few months’ of hard labour and I have so far got away with 40+ hours! But it was immediately apparent that your indexes were done by someone who knew the field well, not a rented general indexer, and were perhaps addressed in the first place to Russianists, which is entirely to be expected in the light of Paul Johnson’s judicious Comment, because you must have assumed Russianists were your readership in the first instance? Otherwise, though, I am most gratified that we seem to have approached the job with similar techniques and priorities (e.g. deep sub-indexing the life and works of only the main player). Yesterday I did my fifth ‘pass’ at the Index, adding about a hundred new terms (mainly persons, places and periodicals), and producing 26.5 pages of A4 typescript. Enough! I shall return to it, checking particularly the alphabetical order, at least two more times before putting the page numbers in, because I find it unnervingly easy to make blunders. E.g., yesterday I came to ‘Denier’ and thought, ‘of what?’. It took me ages before I remembered it was the name of a French photographer in St Petersburg, initials unknown. Similarly, where in the text (and U.K.) was ‘Littlewood’? Ah, it lacked the forename ‘Joan’…

      I totally agree with you that an index is necessary. It’s as though all these people have to be taken from their ‘world’ and entered in the indexer’s Book of Life before they are assured of immortality!

      Your question about the lack of indexes in Soviet publications is very interesting indeed. Before I went to Russia as an undergraduate for a year in 1969, I had a Cambridge supervisor who moaned to me (as perhaps he did to you) about the lack of indexes in Soviet books, so whilst I was there I asked a Russian literary person why they didn’t do indexes. He claimed that good books were so rare in the USSR that everyone who read them remembered every word and did not need an index to re-locate things, whereas no-one ever returned to all the bad books they had to read. However, I think your own Russian source may have been right. I was astonished to discover that my three-volume Lenin (published in 1969) had a detailed subject as well as name index. It’s the only Soviet book that I can remember having a subject index. Although it was very impressive to see Bakhtin’s books through the 1980s being furnished with Russian- and foreign-name indexes, ‘Jesus Christ’ never appeared in them, even though Bakhtin mentioned or discussed him.

      • John Dewey says:

        Very interesting, Patrick. That Lenin was provided with a full index seems to bear out my informant’s claim. After all, how could anything subversive be found in Holy Writ? It could well be that the Cambridge supervisor you mention also pointed out the lack of indexes in Soviet publications to me, although I have no recollection of it. I can imagine that someone like Peter Squire, for instance, would as a historian have found it a particularly frustrating obstacle to research.

  4. Damian Grant says:

    Patrick: Having read your Indexing Post and the several interesting Comments which have followed, I doubt that my own experience as an indexer will add very much. But who knows? My story may well touch your compassion, and that of your readers; so here goes.

    My guilty confession is that I once worked on (for ever, it seems in retrospect) and then published ONLY AN INDEX; nothing else besides! And felt at the time that this was a signal contribution to knowledge. The facts are these. As a kind of Lawrentian, I had found it very frustrating that the two Phoenix volumes of his essays were so inadequately indexed (a couple of perfunctory pages). And so as a preparation for my own definitive book on Lawrence, which somehow never got written, I decided to create my own index, which would cast a stroboscopic light on the evolution of Lawrence’s ideas. This was to be no mere name index, of course; but an Index of Themes, which reveal all of Lawrence’s ideas in their interrelation, contradictoriness and complexity; so that in a way no further work of criticism would ever be necessary. To paraphrase Pope, I had the snake of science by the tail! It all depended on the selection of words to be indexed, of course, and I selected twenty or so head-words (such as death, dualism, feeling, life, love, mind, nature, sex, soul ) and a further dozen of important pairings (blood v nerves, creation v corruption, instinct v intuition, personality v impersonality, etc). I then read and re-read the Phoenix volumes until they started to fall apart in my hands, taking notes on reams and reams of paper. (24 sheets seems a joke!). All this was in the 1980s, pre-computer of course; and I then typed out my apocalyptic index – each page reference including a short, identifying quotation – in what turned out to be 123 pages. Done; and Lawrence was there to be open-mined by anybody who cared to consult this new Key to All Mythologies. A it happened, arch-Lawrentian Keith Sagar was a colleague at Manchester, and when I spoke to him about my Index he persuaded me to let him include it in his next Lawrence book – he published about a dozen – called A D H Lawrence Handbook, where it took up a hundred pages. (I remember I was paid £100, which must work out as the lowest rate of remuneration ever devised in the university.)
    I never received a single comment on the Index, and now – with my books stranded between Manchester and Lille – I can’t even find my own copy of the Handbook. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

  5. Patrick Miles says:

    An absolutely wonderful story, Damian, wonderfully raconted… It should, surely, go into an anthology of literary-critical labours? ‘My Index shall grow/Vaster than empires and more slow!’ And there is something Chekhovian about the ‘detail’ that you were paid exactly a pound a page for it. Moreover, do I discern here a work of proto-structuralism? You can bet thousands and thousands of people have used it!

  6. Damian Grant says:

    Thank you Patrick! And do you know, I have since recalled an episode that proves the truth of your last sentence. When James Boulton and his team were working on the General Index to the CUP edition of Lawrence’s letters (which was eventually published, volume VIII, in 2000) he wrote to me suggesting that they might make some use of my Index; taking over some of the thematic heads, etc. I don’t now remember why nothing came of the suggestion; but I suspect it may have been at least partly due to my own negligence and procrastination. And/or the fact that I was already looking over the sea to Lille, at this time: demob happy? Still, it was an opportunity missed.

    When I tell you, however, that the Index as it stands runs to 285 pages (40 pages, double column, on DHL himself, all his pomps and all his works) entirely without my help, you may wonder how this might have been inflated with it…

  7. Clare Hopkins says:

    Hello Damian, your index does sound wonderful, I must say. And if you want some solid evidence of it being widely consulted, then look no further than the Oxford libraries’ SOLO catalogue. I see that the Bodleian Library has acquired a second copy of the D H Lawrence Handbook in which it reposes, and this is to be found on the open shelves of the Gladstone Link, where it is labelled UBHU. That stands (although I’m not sure quite how) for “high-use material which has been selected on the basis of previous use by readers”. So there!

  8. Damian Grant says:

    Thank you Clare! I will bask in the assumption that ‘high use material’ coincides with high quality material, and stop lamenting my Lawrentian lot…

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