Book Indexing, Part 2: Infinite Loops and Easter Eggs

Photo by Philip Dean

Last week when I listed various reasons why you should not allow a computer to write the index for your monograph, I failed to mention one: That is, you might want to do it yourself because it’s potentially a lot of fun.

I say “potentially” because it is also potentially infuriating, but never mind that for now. Today we’re all about fun.

Many readers are unaware of the mischief book indexers get up to, because few of us read through indexes from beginning to end. Rather, we dip in, skim to what we want, and wing back to the text. So the odds of landing on a prank entry are not high to begin with, and often rogue entries are cleverly placed where you aren’t likely to look. Would you look under “stupid pet tricks” in a book about artificial intelligence?*

In 2009, on a lark, I attended the annual meetings of the American Society for Indexing, in Portland, Oregon. Indexers are among the smartest people I know. Sessions were devoted to taxonomies, metadata, and topics like “Indexing Negatives.” One indexer gave me a 52-page manuscript she had written called “Creating Elegant Subheadings.” It was lucid and riveting. My favorite part compared tactics of “clumping, gathering, condensing, and scattering,” any one of which might be the best approach to organizing a given topic in an index.

It was in Portland that I first learned about “Easter eggs,” which are jokes or images hidden in text or code—or in indexes. Computer programmers and crossword writers love them; video games are full of them; and indexers have been known to toss a few of them into their work as well. TVTropes describes the sorts of Easter eggs commonly found in indexes to computer-science texts:

Recursion: see recursion
Infinite Loop: see Loop, Infinite
Loop, Infinite: see Infinite Loop

It’s no wonder indexers look for diversion; indexing is a lonely job. ASI members can contribute jokes to a site managed by Leverage Technologies, sellers of the popular Cindex indexing software. The jokes are sorted by category (How many indexers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Why did the indexer cross the road? Knock, knock, who’s there? ) There are even a couple of visual jokes). But this is clearly a site where indexers let down their hair: The categories are not even in alphabetical order.

Indexers need an outlet because, yes, indexing can be tedious. I’ve only tried it twice, and both books were short, easy ones (because I wrote them), but even so, after about an hour I began to get twitchy, and somewhere around the third day, punchy. Looking at the printed indexes** now I’m slightly appalled. Not because they contain entries like “carp, shooting,” “rodents,” and “voodoo,” but because the entries reflect the actual content of my books. (Really, two page references for “boogers” in a book for editors and writers?)

The most outrageous example of indexing monkey business I’ve seen, however, is at the back of Al Franken’s book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,*** which appears to be made up of nothing but Easter eggs:












—that is, until you look at the book itself.

Of course, infinite loops and bewildering entries are not so funny when an inattentive indexer writes them by accident, so copy editors inevitably eliminate them—along with cross-references that lead to nonexistent page numbers, or to entries listing the same page numbers as the one you just left, or to entries with so few page numbers it would have taken less space to list them than to make a cross-reference.

More on that next week in Part 3.


* Stuart Russell and Peter Norvig, Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2009), 1127. (Thanks to the wiki for this reference.)

**Note the plural indexes. Indices, while not incorrect, is more appropriate to mathematical contexts.

***Thanks to Margie Towery of Towery Indexing Services.

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