Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction 2013

This annual award declares itself to be the ‘UK’s most prestigious non-fiction award’. From a  shortlist of six titles, the winner, The Pike, was announced on 4 November. I thought I’d take a look at the indexes in these potentially award-winning books to see if I can learn anything from them.

The six titles on this year’s shortlist are listed below, I’ve linked them to Amazon so we can ‘see inside’ and I’ve put some comments and thoughts I had about the index. The comments are mine and do not represent views of the Society of Indexers or any other member of the society. An indexer’s favourite term is ‘it depends’ and while the training equips us with ‘best practice’ sometimes it is necessary to head off into the rough and go with whatever the editor or author wants or that you think required to get the job done.

  • Empires of the Dead: How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WW1’s War Graves, David Crane (William Collins) – the man in question is called Fabian Ware, and as you’d expect there’s a lot of personal names, place names and names of the various organisations that were involved in the creation of the war graves. But there are some features of this index which go against skills I’ve recently acquired. There are quite a few entries with strings of undifferentiated locators – see for example ‘British Empire’ which has collected 17. This could have been broken down with subheadings to make it easier for the reader to find the information they were looking for. However, we don’t know if space was at a premium for the index and some compromises had to be made to get all the locators in somehow. Slightly confusingly the indexer has also grouped together a place and a nationality, see for example ‘Australia, Australians’ and which collected 11 locators, and I’m not sure what I might find if I followed them. Index headings should be clear so that the user knows what they will find if they follow the locators. The use of subheadings when they did appear was also a bit strange, I couldn’t understand why some of the headings for people are accompanied by very specific subheadings, while other people end up with strings of undifferentiated locators. Perhaps the more significant people get subheadings and the less significant don’t, but who is to say who is more important? The reader is the user of the index and should be allowed to choose. However, maybe space was the issue here. Under the heading ‘London’ there are several subheadings, but these subheadings do not appear as entries in their own right, for example ‘British Museum’ has a subheading but not a main entry, so if I’d gone looking for ‘British Museum’ under B I won’t have found it and might have assumed it wasn’t in the book if I hadn’t also looked under London. If something is important enough for a subheading it ought to be important enough for a main heading as well. There is some slight use of cross-references, for example see also is used to point the reader towards several organisations responsible for cemeteries and graves. However, an index doesn’t always need a lot of cross-references and this might be enough for this title.
  • Return of a King, William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury). This is a book I’ve bought because my nephew has done two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the British Army, but I haven’t finished reading it yet. The book is long and dense with lots of names, which makes it quite a demanding read. Christopher Phipps, who is a member of the Society of Indexers, is mentioned in the acknowledgements. The index is also long and the layout is possibly the worst part about it as it is in tiny print and has a lot of run-on subheadings which make it difficult to read through. This may have been necessary for reasons of economy. The index is almost exclusively personal and place names, with some events thrown in for good measure. Some of the entries have strings of up to about 12 of locators, so perhaps for some reason it was necessary to go beyond the typical 6 locators before breaking them down into subheadings, or they were somehow deemed to be more minor players, as some entries with fewer than 12 locators did get subheadings. The reader will also seek in vain in the index for information about topics such as ‘harems’ or ‘camp followers’ which you might expect could be discussed or mentioned in the book. However, that might be a function of the size of the book and the available index space, not necessarily an omission by the indexer. Quite a lot of see cross references from alternative forms of names to the heading the indexer used may be useful for readers.
  • A Sting In The Tale, Dave Goulson (Jonathan Cape) A natural history book about bees. A lot of undifferentiated locators are the first thing to meet the eye in this index. The ‘buff-tailed bumble bee’ nets 43 locators scattered throughout the book, obviously very important as it is a common bee, but it would have been nice to have known more about what was in the book from the use of subheadings. Slightly oddly, the headings mostly appear in the singular, when we usually use plurals. When I sought advice from colleagues about the use of singular and plural headings some thought it might be better if all species names were singular (whether bees or not), and the less specific names would have been plural, for example  ‘buff-tailed bumble bee’ and ‘badgers’. An opposing view thought it might be better to have all the names of animals, plants etc. in the singular as this was a book for the general reader. To get around issues of double entry and repeating locators for scientific and common names there is a separate appendix for the names of British bumblebees. Other indexers might have approached this differently and used double entries with the other name in brackets after the entry, for example ‘Bombus terrestris (buff-tailed bumble bee)’ and/or ‘buff-tailed bumble bee (Bombus terrestris)’; a third approach would be to group all the bumble bees together under a heading with subheadings for the different types and if space allowed have double entries as well. Other headings outside the animal world were in the singular i.e. ‘dinosaur’, ‘garden’ and  ‘landmark’, and these look wrong in any context. This was definitely an index where the decisions made by the indexer were thought-provoking and a lot of alternatives could be suggested.
  • Under Another Sky, Charlotte Higgins (Jonathan Cape) – sadly, no ‘look inside’ available on Amazon and a tiny glimpse on the Guardian’s site. However, I have been to the library and borrowed a copy. So, there is indeed an index, of names and places, some of which suffer from a surfeit of undifferentiated locators (see Tacitus with 29 and then three subheadings for his books). Some of the names don’t appear where academic best practice might expect to find them, although that may have been intentional on the part of the editor. All the entries start with capital letters, so even if there are any themes, they’re hiding in the names somewhere, and you will look in vain for mentions of scientific archaeological techniques such as oxygen isotope analysis, or types of sites such as forts, towns and roads, although each is indexed under its ‘name’ i.e. Vindolanda, Verulamium and Stane Street. The cross-referencing is also a little inconsistent i.e. ‘Venta Icenorum  29, 30’ but ‘Venta Silurum see Caerwent’, why not ‘Venta Icenorum see Caister St Edmund’? As the book is targeted at the general reader it might have been considered that a detailed index wasn’t necessary, but in fact, a better index would serve more ‘general readers’ because they could be coming in from almost any point of view.
  • The Pike, Lucy Hughes-Hallett (4th Estate) – “the story of Gabriele D’Annunzio: poet, daredevil – and Fascist” and another mighty tome and suitably mighty index. The entries for the subject of the book run over three and a half pages of two column layout. As with ‘Return of a King‘ the subheadings appear not in alphabetical order but in order of first appearance in the text, which can be confusing – ‘baldness’ appears as a subheading over a column after the locators for ‘appearance and dress’, and is not double entered. The index includes personal and place names, and the titles of the poems D’Annunzio wrote. Some of the personal names suffer having undifferentiated strings of locators and others seem to have subheadings for almost every mention made of them. Perhaps we are seeing the more important characters with detailed subheadings and the minor characters having to put up with being undifferentiated. But who is to say who is worthy of this differentiation? If one were interested in the minor character and was seeking information perhaps one would like to see more detailed subheadings? Titles of poems, operas and other publications are in italics which is a useful way to pick them out. There are some see cross references between entries for people known by more than one name and poems known by their English title rather than the Italian title. There’s also plenty of explanatory text in the headings, for example when place names change both are given or where it clarifies what the entry is about, for example ‘Trier (caricaturist)’, so not about the place.
  • Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning, Charles Moore (Allen Lane). The longest book in the short list by several hundreds of pages, and accompanied by an equally extensive index, over 30 pages of triple column layout. The indexers, Christopher Phipps and Marian Aird, are named in the acknowledgements. Both are members of the Society of Indexers so the index could be a model of how a huge biography of an important historical figure should be indexed. There are occasional strings of undifferentiated locators, where the ‘no more than about 6’ rule has been stretched to about 10 or 11, as with some of the other indexes above, in this book see the entry for the ‘Guardian’. There’s lots of useful additional explanations included against the headings. They have included things like changes of name through marriage, titles given later on, even when the person only has one appearance in the book, which could prove a useful reference point for future indexers. Sometimes there’s double entry and sometimes a see cross reference, for example ‘MLR: see Minimum Lending Rate’, and only one set of locators but ‘Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC)’ and ‘JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee)’ both get all the locators, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps through lack of space the reader will not find an entry under ‘handbags’ as a main heading, but it is hiding under Thatcher, Margaret, Character & characteristics.

6 thoughts on “Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction 2013

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