July 11, 2004

The Joys of the Index

Last week, The Independent published a delightful Philip Hensher article on the joys of looking at the indexes of books. Here's a brief sample:

Indexing has its abuses, as well as its uses. Ostensibly something provided to help readers make sense of a long narrative, to reduce a story to its bare essentials in a neutral, analytical way, in reality many indexes have an element of heckling, of bizarre and tendentious judgement, of presenting a book's narrative in unforgiving summary. The book itself may make efforts to be balanced and generous; when it comes to the index, everything is clear.

A fine example came last year with Ruth Dudley Edwards's book about Hugh Cudlipp and Cecil King. The author had a very difficult time with King's appalling widow, Dame Ruth Railton, a woman for whom very few people ever had a good word. The book itself was a model of restraint when dealing with her excesses, but when it came to the index, the gloves came off, in part running: "marriage; psychic powers believed in by King; disliked by his friends; King wants as musical director of ATV; encourages his megalomania; increasing possessiveness... moves to Ireland with King; denounces Cudlipp; hatred of Ireland; gets rid of family correspondence; cocoons King from children and grandchildren; and King's death; disposes of his money; treatment of his family; traumatises Secker and Warburg."

A fair summary, but devastating in its final judgement. Such miniature narratives have a bizarre charm, occasionally threatening to make reading the book itself unnecessary. The Yale editions of James Boswell's journals are so fully indexed they provide a breathlessly exciting story on their own: "adventure with a monstrous big whore; Lady Northumberland sends polite letter showing she does not mean to do anything; JB makes jaunt to Oxford, is very unhappy; low-spirited; visits Newgate; sees an execution, terribly shocked, dares not sleep by himself; wretched; locked out of his lodging; meets S[amuel] J[ohnson]; alarmed by fear of another infection; solaces his existence with two girls..."

You should read the whole article, which I found via Early Modern Notes. I'd love to give a fun index to the book I'll someday write based on my dissertation, but I have the feeling that other academics would frown upon that...

Update: I knew I could remember reading something fun about indexes over the last year, so I browsed through my old blog and found a link to this entertaining Henry Farrell post from Crooked Timber. The book he describes--Hazel K. Bell's Indexes and Indexers in Fact and Fiction--sounds like a great read.

Posted by Ed at July 11, 2004 03:04 PM

Interesting...very interesting!

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