Tag Archives: reaktion

Book reviewers notice the quality of indexes

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 Autobiography by 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:

  • Wolf by 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 Victoria by 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 Nonfiction edited 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 Poems by 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.

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