Thursday, November 22, 2012

The index

For the past few weeks I have been compiling the index to our next book, Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century. Hence the radio silence in the early hours, when, at times, I am active. My apologies to concerned readers. The first index I created was for my first book, and, to my astonishment, that was almost twenty years ago. It earned me a certificate of accreditation to the Australian Society of Indexers in Melbourne, which I still cherish. Indexing a book is a wonderfully absorbing task, and nowadays under-appreciated. Not that serious bibliophiles do not appreciate a good index. Rather, it is becoming a widespread misconception, even among some editors and publishers, that somehow keyword searching and computers or even, God forbid, book indexing software, can somehow take the place of an indexer with a brain, a measure of judgment, and a beating heart. This is simply not the case. Many concepts, ideas, and themes that recur in a book do so rather subtly, and lurk beneath sentences and in chapters that require deft herding, and much discrimination—in the best sense. Indeed they may only swim into particular focus when the indexer has had the good sense to identify and collate them under clear and simple headings: food; Jewry and Jewishness; florists, court; Fashoda Incident (1898); or servants, ubiquity of, see also butlers, chauffeurs, valets, and maids, house-, ladies’, scullery, still-room, etc.; whatever. At times the author is only partly aware of their very existence. This is especially true when the volume contains the work of many hands, as in this case. The indexer’s art is therefore to join many, sometimes hundreds of dots, mindful that the resulting reference tool may open for potential readers a rewarding vista of possibility. You can never know what people will try to find in an index, but obviously the more and better points of access you create, the wider the vista that will open before them, like a glorious Persian carpet: Tabriz, Kashan, Herat, see also Kerman. I suppose the word create is key here. Book indexing is a deeply creative process, and can even embrace humor. Admittedly, these days indexes are inclined to be starchy. I have noticed lately that many indexers loftily declare their firm intention to disregard titles and honorifics when listing names. How foolish! In the present context, such an approach would be almost insulting because it flies in the face of Edwardian social usage, whose nuances can be extremely revealing, for naturally “Vincent, Lady Helen (later Viscountess D’Abernon)” floated effortlessly several social notches above “Clarke, Marguerite, Lady,” but not nearly so high as the stratospheric “Gower, Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-, Duchess of Sutherland.” This is not to exclude the special claims of Wettach, Charles Adrien, called ‘Grock,’ clown,” or even “‘Toby,’ performing dog,” far from it, but the indexer has a palette and brushes, and would be ill-advised not to resort to them liberally. Such an approach admittedly requires a good number of wordy cross-references such as “Cranborne, Viscountess, see Cecil, Marjorie Olein Gascoyne-, Marchioness of Salisbury,” or “Minto, fourth Earl of, see Kynynmound, Gilbert John Elliot-Murray-, fourth Earl of Minto.” Never mind. It’s worth it. In the end, when the almost defining issue of space raises its ugly head, as it surely must, these things can afford to bite the dust. But, with luck, there will be enough space, so they can stay for the edification of future inquirers into the vanished universe of Edwardian pecking order.

What do you need to be a good indexer? You need time and patience. You need to switch off the media, ignore e-mail, and concentrate for long periods, because you are, in a sense, reading and re-reading the book in question more closely even than the authors. You need a sense of proportion, such that a single passing reference to this or that does not cut the mustard as regards the special form of acknowledgment that is a discrete entry in the index. You need an excellent library of reference books (above), trustworthy ones—none of this wiki nonsense. You need a good chair, a strong bottom, broad shoulders, and a wide desk. You need to care enough about consistency to be able to render at times vital, last-minute assistance to overworked copyeditors and typesetters, but also to be flexible enough to allow for subtly revealing forms of creative inconsistency within the parameters of the index itself. You need to be a good note-taker, and to have an eye for detail, as microscopic as possible, whilst keeping hold of the larger vista. These are not insignificant skills, and it is a tragedy for this little profession, this calling, that publishers are no longer in a position to pay fair market rates for the invaluable service an indexer provides.

In the end, a further factor may strengthen the usefulness of an index: luck. After the job is done, and the index itself is read for the usual editorial double-checking, one suddenly becomes aware of arbitrary but stimulating adjacencies, a simple consequence of alphabetical order. Thus:
Morgan, John Pierpont (1837–1913)
Morgan, William de (1839–1917)
Morland, George (1763–1804)
Morrell, Lady Ottoline (1873–1938)
Morris, William (1834–1896)
Morris and Company
Morris dancing
motor tourism, see also chauffeurs, problems of etiquette
That’s just a random sampling, and I’m only up to page 360.

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