Orwell Prize 2014 – indexes in the shortlisted books

The Orwell Prize is Britain’s most prestigious prize for political writing. Every year, we award prizes for the work which comes closest to George Orwell’s ambition ‘to make political writing into an art’. Or so it says on the website. So what about the indexes that accompany these interesting books?

Coolie Woman by Gaiutra Bahadur. In 1903 a Brahmin woman sailed from India to Guyana as a ‘coolie’, the name the British gave to the million indentured labourers they recruited for sugar plantations worldwide after slavery ended.

  • The index contains lots of names of people, places and some things such as ships, and some topics. The names of the women are interesting in themselves because they only have one name, and do not have a typical ‘surname, forename’ entry.
  • It is, however,  ‘over-worked’ in that it gives additional explanatory information alongside many headings which have one or few locators. There are also many headings with subheadings giving the same locators as the one or two main heading locators. This is not necessary if there are only one or two locators, as the reader is not going to be much troubled by referring to one or two places if it is the named person they are seeking.
  • There are no ‘see’ or ‘see also’ cross-references, which may not be a bad thing as it could mean everything was double entered under multiple headings. However, there are some headings that are packed with lots of subheadings which could have been teased out into main headings, for example, the heading for ‘British Guiana’ has the names of lots of plantations mixed with other subheadings. The plantations do not appear as main headings in their own right, which many of them could have done, and there is no cross-reference from the ‘plantations’ entry. So finding information about ‘plantations’ is not as easy as it could be.
  • All of the place names for towns in India are tucked away under the country name, which is tricky to use in the run-on layout.
  • Some of the terms used as main headings are also a little odd. For example the main heading ‘child’ is followed by many subheadings including ‘brides’, ‘illegitimacy’, ‘laborers’, ‘mixed-race’ and ‘mortality’. It might have been better to have one heading starting ‘child’ and another for ‘children’ to split the words that are associated with ‘child’ from those to do with children as a group.
  • There’s a lot that could be done to make this index better.

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter. In 1949 Mao Zedong hoisted the red flag over Beijing’s Forbidden City. Instead of liberating the country, the communists destroyed the old order and replaced it with a repressive system that would dominate every aspect of Chinese life.

  • There is an index, it is in set-out format, with the subheadings one under the other, not run-on format, which is often easier to follow.
  • There are many place and personal names. For the personal names there are some clusters of the more popular ones, for example there are 10 ‘Li’ names. As there are relatively few ‘surnames’ in Chinese, this is not unexpected. For more on indexing Chinese surnames see Chinese Personal Names.
  • Some entries suffer from a surfeit of locators, for example ‘famine’ has eight, and although the locators pop up elsewhere as subheadings, the main headings aren’t also used as subheadings to divide up the eight locators, which might have been useful, or other subheadings could have been selected once all of the ‘famine’ entries had been reviewed.
  • Where subheadings are used, the main headings sometimes also keep long strings of locators, for example ‘suicides’ where nine locators remain at the main heading and there are five subheadings.
  • There are a few cross-references, but some, such as ‘films see cinema’ were unnecessary as the preferred term had only a few locators and it would not have taken up much room to repeat them. The few see also cross-references appear useful.

The World’s Most Dangerous Place: Inside the Outlaw State of Somalia by James Fergusson. Award-winning journalist James Fergusson is among the few to have witnessed at first hand the devastating reality of life in the failed and desperate state of Somalia.

  • The indexer has not been named so far as I can see in the ‘Look Inside’ text, but they were certainly someone who knows what to do. This index is laid out in set-out format, so is easy to follow. There are no strings of locators, there are no main headings with ‘left over’ locators followed by subheadings, where ranges of locators occur at main headings the subheadings split the range into smaller chunks. Where subheadings are used more than once or as main headings the locators match. The cross-references are good.

This Boy by Alan Johnson. Alan Johnson’s childhood was not so much difficult as unusual, particularly for a man who was destined to become Home Secretary.

  • There is an index, mostly names and places, but it has a few problems. Some long strings of locators appear, for example ‘Carter, Jimmy’ has 11. Strings of locators appear at main headings and are followed by subheadings with few locators. These are not helpful and the main heading locators should be found suitable subheadings, for example ‘Sloane Grammar School’.
  • The indexer has sorted the subheading entries for Alan and his family by date, as might often be found in an autobiography, but the run-on layout makes them difficult to follow.

Not for Turning by Charles Moore. I have discussed this excellent index here.

The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration by David Goodhart did not have a Look Inside available on Amazon.

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