Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Show Some Respect for the Humble Index

I've been indexing for the last two days, and boy are my brains tired. Remaining vague as always about my gig, I'll just reveal that the task has fallen on me to whip up an index for a new book I've been editing for the last few months. I've indexed many books over the last several years (including one on a freelance basis for an acquaintance who I won't name drop, except to hint that he used to, until recently, blog a very, very wordy "dangeral" blog of some notoriety), and it's a task I find relatively interesting and satisfying ... but if you've never done it, lemme tell you, it's harder than it sounds. In fact, I'm too mentally tired to blab at length about how challenging indexing can be, so maybe you'll be kind enough to suspend disbelief at the assertion that putting terms, names, and concepts in alphabetical order so that people can find things they need to find is, despite the simplicity of the concept, not a cake walk.

It can be fun, though (if you're a nerd). Not only is it a little like putting together a big word puzzle, it also provides the chance to make one's own creative mark on the book. An index is, in a way, a retelling of the narrative. Years ago, it even occurred to me that it might be a cool idea to write fiction in the form of an index. Then I read Pale Fire ... and I discovered, to some chagrin of my own, that Nabokov had already done it, and, of course, vastly more skillfully and entertainingly than I could ever hope to do. The index to Pale Fire, in fact, is one of my very favorite pieces of fiction. But then I guess I'm biased. Biased in favor of indexes, man.

Nowadays, with so much information in electronic form, and the internets and search engines and everything, old-fashioned thumb indexes don't get a lot of regard. But they're still useful -- particularly when you don't know exactly what you're looking for, and what sub-topics might be of interest. You can find things via an index that you didn't even know you were looking for. I love doing research on-line, but I still stand behind the index, dammit. The index remains sound.

So, yeah, the humble index. Next time you're thumbing through one, please show a little respect for it and the poor underpaid drone who made it. It didn't get there on its own.

1 comment:

Mr. Insert Namehere said...

I conk kurr. Indexes are great. Or is that indeces? And if they put the INNdex at the back of the book, why dont they put an OUTdex at the beginning of the book? Oh, that's called the table of contents.

The previous paragraph was meant to be read aloud in an Andy Rooney voice. The next paragraph is meant to be read aloud in a Milton Rosenberg If He Was A Semantics And/Or Math Professor voice.

It's not an index, it's a table, because everybody knows that when you list subjects based solely by the order in which they are presented, that's a table! Tables are first order, deterministic structures whose collective serial elements are distinguized by nothing but their proximity to some other, possibly unrelated element. Think of your next door neighbor one one side of your home and on the other... do they inform the "reader" of any valuable information about you character? Perhaps only to the reader known as "Val Pak."

But ahhhhh... the INNNNdex! A grouping of groupings! Array of arrays! Second orders ahoy! Boston Catholic parishes listed by number of convicted pederasts! Cost of available malt liquor by rate of automobile robbery! Ejaculating BBW's who love Lactating Nuns, XVII! Reilly, Charles Nelson, p. 23, 62, 392, 523!

Yes those are great indexes, but my favorite index, also painstakingly constructed by our host, will always be