100 best non-fiction books – A Brief History of Time

For 2016 Author Robert McCrum has compiled a list of the 100 best non-fiction books. These are “key texts in English that have shaped our literary culture and made us who we are”, in the Anglo-American English language tradition, the list covers “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture”. Here are my comments on the index in this week’s volume.

Steven Hawking’s book is the one that many have bought but (relatively) few have finished and gave its name to the ‘Hawking Index‘. A quick peep inside the book courtesy of Amazon shows that there is an index to help readers around the text. But note you’re looking at the 1988 version of the text, the current 2011 version may be different.

A few things to note:

  • A capital letter is used for every heading. While this is not ‘wrong’, it can make it hard for the reader’s eye to differentiate between people’s names, titles of things that usually have capitals, and other things. It might have been better to follow the usage in the book, for example ‘big bang’ on page 9 is lower case, not with an initial capital.
  • Subheadings are not used consistently, there are lots of cases of entries with long strings of locators and no subheadings and other entries that have very few locators that have subheadings. Rule of thumb is no more than about 5 or 6 entries at each heading or subheading so that the reader can easily remember them without having to go back to the index. There are cases when more is acceptable, often when space is limited, but really there should be enough space for all the subheadings required.
  • Plurals are not used where they should be. Entries for things that are countable are usually given in the plural form. This index has a heading ‘Star’ with a see also cross reference to ‘Neutron stars’. Much better to have plural for both.
  • Some of the cross references are unnecessary and would have been better as subheadings to the main heading they are referred from, for example the ‘Neutron stars’ example above. Neutron stars could remain as a heading in its own right.

A better index might have helped a few more people finish this book.

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