The essential art of the book indexer
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, March 19, 2002)

J.G. Ballard's book of short fiction, War Fever, contains a story consisting of nothing but a five-page index. It's all that remains of an autobiography written by a man who disappeared after being tried in secret for revolutionary activity. Though the authorities suppressed his book, the index somehow survived; we readers have to figure out his fate from the list of topics that was supposed to appear at the end of the book.

That curious little narrative falls into a genre that Jorge Luis Borges made his own: fragments of imaginary documents. The Ballard story could have been written only by someone who loves a good index for itself rather than merely as a guide to a book's contents. The nature of that peculiar love, and the pleasures it brings, are subjects of a delightful anthology from the University of Toronto Press, Indexers and Indexes in Fact & Fiction, edited by Hazel K. Bell.

Some indexes are so simple-minded they seem to have been generated by computers, but making a good index is an independent literary craft, practised by freelancers for more than a century. Bell, who has prepared indexes to some 600 books and journals, was the editor for many years of The Indexer, a trade journal, from which she's drawn many of the articles in her collection. She makes her subject both serious and funny. She knows how hard it is to produce a good index and she celebrates the understated comedy that results when an expert indexer meets first-class material.

She lifts from James Boswell's London Journal a piece of F.A. Pottle's index that conveys a Boswellian sexual exploit with admirable economy: "(Louisa), actress -- JB visits; JB's increased feeling for; JB discusses love with; JB anticipates delight with; JB lends two guineas to; JB entreats to be kind; discourages JB; JB declares passion for; makes assignation with JB; consummation with JB interrupted; JB afraid of a rival; JB feels coolness for; JB incredulous at infection from; JB enraged at perfidy of; JB asks his two guineas back."

A.S. Byatt, in the introduction to Bell's book, says experienced readers examine the index first, to grasp an author's approach; if you know the subject, the index also indicates how much fresh or imaginative research has gone into the book. And the perfect index will tell you precisely how far the book ranges. The 52-page index to Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, a model of its kind, demonstrates that Burton plucked out of the air (or out of the 17th-century library he ran at Oxford) any bit of trivia that caught his fancy: "Biarmi, high priests who sanctify the wombs of the wives of the kings of Calicut; Bilia, who took it for granted that all men had bad breaths like her husband; Climate, a cause of lust & jealousy; Genesis, thought unadvisable reading; Kisses, honest and otherwise; Prosper, who advised young men not to read the Song of Solomon ..."

An author preparing an index (rather than employing a pro like Bell) sometimes seizes on those last few pages as an extra chance to hector the reader. The index to High-Tech Heretic, Clifford Stoll's polemic against computers in schools, operates as a parallel harangue, with items like "Addictive nature of the Internet; Barbarians, invasion of teaching by; Information is free, not really; Information is power, not really; Nation of dolts ..." A Man of Honour, the autobiography of a Mafia chieftain, Joseph Bonnanno, carries what we might call a vanity index. It directs the reader to the fine qualities of the author: "generosity of, handsomeness of; intellect of; language skills of; tact of; wit of ..."

There may be people who can resist the impulse to search for their own names in the index of a book on subjects with which they have some connection; but I've never heard of such a person. There are, however, people who habitually read nothing but the index. A federal cabinet minister of the Trudeau era told me he's not interested enough to buy any of the books written about that period. Instead, he picks up each new one in a bookstore when it appears, finds his name in the index, reads the references and puts it down again. He has what you might call a focused interest.

As an index reader, I'm particularly partial to Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841. It mainly concerns financial scams and fantasies, like the South Sea bubble, but the index suggests how wide a net Mackay casts -- "Gregorian chant, its merit tested by fire; Stonehenge ascribed to Merlin; Tax on beards imposed by Peter the Great." (For some reason, rules governing facial hair obsess Mackay.) I also like to see a little story jump out of an index. If you wonder how Robertson Davies enjoyed the years he spent in Peterborough editing the Examiner, just glance at the first lines of the "Peterborough" entry in the index to Judith Skelton Grant's Davies biography. They include "conservative, suspicious; cold; culturally arid in wartime; Davieses seen as odd ..."

Indexes are always in alphabetical order, a necessary system that produces odd conjunctions. Byatt says that's among the pleasures of index reading, "the exoticism of juxtaposition ... The delightfully mad quality of heterogeneous things linked violently together by the arbitrary order of the alphabet." In the index to Kenneth Lynn's Hemingway, for instance, Toklas, Alice B. rests right next to Tolstoy, Leo, and Wilson, Woodrow nestles beside Winchell, Walter.

Arbitrary or not, the alphabet as an ordering system has one great advantage: Everyone likely to pick up a book can navigate by it. Or so I thought until I read Indexers and Indexes. Here I find A.S. Byatt reporting that "there has been a pedagogic fashion for not teaching the alphabet to children, out of a current fear of 'rote learning.' " Could that be true? I think not. I'd prefer to consider that fashion a nightmarish fantasy of Byatt's. The horrible alternative would be to accept that there are schools so depraved that they practise the educational equivalent of child abuse and rob their defenceless pupils not only of an essential tool of everyday life but also of the pleasure to be found in reading indexes.

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