Over on Twitter it’s possible to find readers, mostly students, complaining that their books don’t have indexes. Having twice been a student I know it is hard to research essay topics, or write a thesis, if books don’t have indexes. So I thought I’d ask a few of them which books they have found and see if they have anything in common. Here are some of the books they have mentioned:
Atlanta and Environs by Franklin Garrett, published by University of Georgia Press, reprinted 2011. A monster of over 900 pages with an index, and one of a series of books, the person complaining said they were not detailed enough.
Actually, I don’t think they have anything in common except the lack of an index. Some of these publications date from before the internet and e-books were ever thought of, some have been released in the last few years. Some come from language traditions which don’t usually have an index. All have ended up on a reading list or have been sought out by the students as necessary reading for their courses or research. All I can say to authors and editors is, please, spare a thought for future readers and students. Readers in the future can’t count on an electronic version being available, so it surely makes sense to include a back-of-the-book index. For more on the differences between free text searching and indexes, see this useful page.
I usually wake up to Radio 4’s Today programme. All too often as with most news it is all doom, gloom and tragedy. However, yesterday morning I surfaced just before the brief item about the launch of the singer Morrissey’s autobiography and my ears pricked up when they mentioned it was published without an index. There are many other reasons that this book is newsworthy:
Penguin has published it as a ‘Classic’ along with the ancient writers, Louisa May Alcott and the rest – so bold because while there are those fans who claim his music as having greatness the quality of his writing was less certain
There are no chapters – so maybe it is more fiction than non-fiction?
The opening paragraph goes on a bit over four and half pages
There’s masses of name dropping and he says what he thinks about an awful lot of people
He’s written about relationships which interested his fans for many years.
But as an indexer I have to say it was a brave choice on someone’s part to leave out the index altogether. Of course, it means people have to read the whole thing to pick out nuggets about other celebrities and whatever else he has written about so getting information out as ‘news’ took longer than it should, but really, is leaving it out serving the audience in the longer term? As with Mortimer Wheeler and his teachers and contemporaries in my previous blog, it is those very celebrities and people he has worked with, had relationships of any kind with, the songs he’s written, and the music industry players who have affected him, who will be sought after by readers in the future. Valuable information may be easily missed by people who don’t have the time or inclination to read the book to extract every scrap that could so easily have been done by an indexer.
[Edit May 2014] Here’s a fan’s index that can be searched online by keyword. It’s not an analytical index in the true sense, but a labour of love that might be useful. Unfortunately you can’t print it out either.
Of the thousands of books that are published each year, a number are reviewed by newspapers for the general reading public and sometimes the index is so good or so bad it merits a comment from the reviewer. Even the absence of an index can generate a comment.
Here are a few published in the Guardian in the last couple of years. I’ve picked the Guardian and its Sunday equivalent the Observer because for now at least, access is free and the search produces sensible results.
Indexes that pleased the reviewer, and I could only easily find one:
Rod: The Autobiographyby Rod Stewart (Century, £20) – “It also – excellent in such a book – has a comprehensive index: “Lumley, Joanna 177-9”; “nuclear weapons 28,29”; “oral sex: Rod advised against 58; untrue stories of 232″ and so on.” Given the nature of the book with the crowd of celebrity names that makes up the backdrop to Rod’s public and private life, a thorough listing of all the people, places and events of Rod’s life would seem only right. Look inside at Amazon bears this out.
Indexes that weren’t up to the reviewer’s expectations:
Wolfby Garry Marvin (Reaktion, £9.99) – “The book’s index, sadly, is a skimpy two-page effort that is not much more useful than a single entry reading “Wolf, passim”. Look inside at Amazon indeed shows only two pages, and it is indeed a skimpy effort – there must surely be more information in the 150 pages or so of text that could be teased out into an index.
Shooting Victoriaby Paul Thomas Murphy – “Although Murphy revels in Victorian criminal trials and popular outcries, his skimpy knowledge of the administration and influence of the royal court hobbles his book. It is symptomatic that he keeps calling aristocrats by the wrong titles – the Dowager Duchess of Roxburghe is misnamed, Lord Londesborough is called Jonesborough – and further muddles them in a havoc-strewn index.” Alas this index is not available to Look inside at Amazon as I’d like to have seen what “havoc-strewn index” meant.
No index – more common and seems to have occurred in a greater range of books:
London Peculiar and Other Nonfictionedited by Michael Moorcock and Allan Kausch (Merlin Press, £17.99) – “It’s a pity there’s no index…” Indeed, how interesting it would have been to see the themes of the essays plotted out in an index to see where he returned to ideas and the extent of his topics.
Selected Poemsby Tony Harrison (Penguin, £9.99) – “…none of his stage or film verse is included here. Nor is an index, either of poems or first lines, which seems a trifle shabby.” Listing poem titles and first lines isn’t a difficult job and would definitely help the reader find their favourites.
Shakespeare’s Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub by Pete Brown (MacMillan £16.99) – “The only things that let this amiable book down slightly are the absence of an index, and the somewhat misleading title…” A book that’s packed with famous names and London history must surely be worth indexing.
Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea by Donovan Hohn (Union Books £20) – ” Here’s something original and eccentric and multi-faceted that tells you a good many interesting things about the world – and then, not having an index, maximises your chance of forgetting them.” Oh, what a shame!
Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars by Scotty Bowers (Atlantic £16.99) – “… Scotty never lies. Neither does he supply his book with an index, so if you’re interested in the secret sex lives of the stars, you are going to have to search through these pages for Spence and Kate, Eddie and Wally, Randy and Cary, Rock, Ty and Noel, and Vivien Leigh …”
Cured, Fermented and Smoked Foods, edited by Helen Saberi (Prospect Books) “The lack of an index in what is a scholarly work is disappointing, but this is a wonderful celebration of global food culture: detailed yet never indigestible.”
So with the exception of Rod Stewart, all of the authors of these books could have improved their reviews by having better indexes or asking for one in the first place.