My Last Index

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

March 18, 2012

A casual reader of authors' acknowledgment pages will encounter expressions of familial gratitude that paper over years of spousal neglect and missed cello recitals. A keen reader of those pages may happen upon animals that were essential to an author's well-being—supportive dogs, diverting cats, or, in one instance, "four very special squirrels." But even an assiduous reader of acknowledgments could go a lifetime without coming across a single shout-out to a competent indexer.

That is mostly because the index gets constructed late in the book-making process. But it's also because most readers pay no mind to indexes, especially at this moment in time when they are being supplanted by Amazon and Google. More and more, when I want to track down an errant tidbit of information about a book, I use Amazon's "Search inside this book" function, which allows interested parties to access a book's front cover, copyright, table of contents, first pages (and sometimes more), and index. But there's no reason to even use the index when you can "Look Inside!" to find anything you need.

I had plenty of time to ponder the unsung heroism of indexers when I was finishing my latest book. Twice before, I had assembled an indexer's tools of trade: walking down the stationery aisles of a college book store, pausing to consider the nib and color of my Flair pens, halting before the index cards. But when I began work on this index, I was overcome with thoughts of doom that Nancy Mulvany, author of Indexing Books, attributes to two factors that plague self-indexing authors: general fatigue and too much self-involvement. "Intense involvement with one's book," Mulvany writes, "can make it very difficult to anticipate the index user's needs accurately."

Perhaps my mood was dire because I'd lost the services of my favorite proofreader, a woman who knew a blackberry from a BlackBerry, and who could be counted on to fix my flawed French. Perhaps it was because I was forced to notice how often I'd failed to include page citations in my bibliography entries, and how inconsistently I'd applied the protocol for citing Web sites—a result of my failure to imagine a future index user so needy as to require the exact date of my visit to Or perhaps it was because my daughter was six months away from leaving home for college and I was missing her in advance.

Perhaps for all of those reasons, I could only see my latest index as a running commentary on the fragility of all human endeavor. And so I started reading indexes while reluctantly compiling my own.

Indexes comprise lists of headings, normally nouns or noun phrases, that get modified by subheadings, the best of which take the form of a noun and a preposition. If you run your eyes over the William Wordsworth entry in Margie Towery's cumulative index to The Letters of Matthew Arnold, you will see Wordsworth's acquaintance with Arnold transformed into parallel constructions, like a chain of plastic monkeys, each one linked to Wordsworth by the hook of its preposition: school holidays of, allusions to, correspondence with.

Only very rarely in Towery's index do you come across the less desirable "and" construction. In the lengthy "diva" entry in the index to Wayne Koestenbaum's The Queen's Throat, the prepositional entries (fans' devotion to, vocal crises suffered by, professional rivalry of) are joined by more loosely associative constructions (disease and, sexuality and) that signal an indexer's concession of defeat.

For an indexer, citations that require no subheadings are the equivalent of the stockinette stitch for an expert knitter. The indexer of Craig Seligman's Sontag & Kael, for example, makes swift work of the book's glancing reference to Annette Bening. She is a subtle actress with a varied repertoire, but since she shows up in Seligman's book only long enough for Pauline Kael to call her "a stunning actress and a superb wiggler," she merits no more than a single line. Less concrete single references can lead the indexer into cable-stitch complications. Seligman only once takes up the topic of hyperbole in criticism, but one can imagine his indexer fretting over that entry, trying to anticipate how some future reader would find her way back to the page on which Seligman celebrates rhetorical excess.

With my index cards still tightly shrink-wrapped, I turned to the Web site of the American Society for Indexing. I imagined myself attending a conference seminar on "Indexing Online Help in MadCap Flare," or signing up for one of the many networking opportunities. The highlight of the society's annual conference—or at least I imagined it was, as I sat at my desk not compiling my own index—would be the bestowal of the H.W. Wilson Award. As I read about its 2009 recipient, Jan Wright, the award's judges convinced me I ought to read the index that she had created for Real World Adobe InDesign CS3 because of its "detailed level of granularity," but also, more surprisingly, because of its use of humor ("not always an easy thing to carry off").

Luckily, I was able to find Real World Adobe InDesign CS3 in a local library's 005.52 shelving—a Dewey region into which I'd never before ventured, and where obsolete software manuals sagged on the shelves. The book's index was not quite as scintillating as I had hoped, but I did catch frequent glimpses of Jan Wright's sense of humor, for example, in her use of the catchphrase "accursed files" as an index entry directing the reader to a page discussing QuarkXPress documents that InDesign has trouble converting.

When I looked up the page given next to the index entry, "David Blatner, indexer's eternal affections toward," it led to this piece of Blatner advice: "Hire a professional indexer. The author of a text is the worst person for the job."

Yes! I should have hired a professional indexer. My indexer would wear owl glasses and three tiny garnet rings, like the nice woman who registered my car at the county licensing office. And she would act like those reality TV nannies who sweep into chaotic households and teach hapless parents how to make family mission statements on poster board. In my mind's eye, my indexer made brisk judgments about synonymous or closely related terms (audience member or fan? romantic period or romantic era?) and provided suitable cross-references.

And then, at the snap of her fingers, cards jumped into order, books flew back onto the shelf, and the dog gave himself a bath.

Back in the real world, a painter had been removing paint from the outside of my house with a heat gun. I had grown used to the toxic smell of superheated paint entering through the leaky window frames, and to the dog yelping every time the painter moved his ladder. But one morning, as I began alphabetizing mounds of index cards, I smelled a new burning smell, one reminiscent of campfires.

The houses in my neighborhood were built with balloon frames, a style of construction which, according to a neighbor, is especially vulnerable to fire. "If someone threw a smoke bomb," he once opined, "they'd be burned to a cinder in no time." The neighborhood was a peaceful one so I'd never had cause to ponder this apocryphal scenario.

But now, as I sat card-sorting (Bell, Belton, Benjamin, Bernhardt) and sub-sorting (Bernhardt: cultural memory of, as Hamlet, handkerchief of, recording of), the neighbor's words came back to haunt me. Balloon frame, heat gun, smoke bomb—the painter wasn't around, so my husband started walking around the house looking for signs of smoldering.

I kept to the task at hand, sorting my cards (Denby, Dench, Dermody, Dickens), as fire trucks came roaring up to the curb (Edison, Edgeworth, Ekerow, Elfenbein).

Jonathan Swift, in his 1704 A Tale of a Tub, describes two means of using books: "to serve them as men do lords—learn their titles exactly and then brag of their acquaintance," or "the choicer, the profounder and politer method, to get a thorough insight into the index, by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail."

Swift goes on to say that entering the place of learning at the great gate requires an expense of time and forms, and so "men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back door." But then the firemen entered by the front door, and I paused in case the world was about to end, not with a whimper (Gainsborough, Galindo, Garrick), but with a roar of flames.

Judith Pascoe is a professor of English at the University of Iowa. Her latest book, "The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice," was published by the University of Michigan Press. Her house is still standing.