Saturday, August 20, 2011


One of the things that kept me busy last month was the task of indexing my book. Indexes are one of the arcana of scholarship, along with footnotes. In most cases today the footnote has lost its former position at the bottom of the page of text and has been relegated to the back of the book, thus becoming an "endnote." The footnote has even been the subject of an impressive academic study by Anthony Grafton, who specializes in the arcana of scholarship. According to Grafton (this is a quote from a review of The Footnote: A Curious History), the footnote is "critical to the scientific nature of historical writing and therefore reflects both the ideology and technical practices of the craft. The footnote confers 'proof' that the historian has visited the appropriate archives, dusted off the necessary documents, and consulted and exhausted the secondary literature. It is, in short, a badge of legitimacy." Okay.

I have not yet come across a scholarly study of the index, but it too has a history. The most famous index is of course "the Index," the list of books prohibited by the Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic in the years before Vatican II so the Index was not an unfamiliar term to me as a child. I didn't associate it with Descartes or Galileo but with certain scandalous movies.

In contemporary publishing of course the index is not a separate entity, but goes to the back of the book. I am certain that everyone reading this knows what an index is. Suffice it for me to say that the index has received literary treatment. Kurt Vonnegut's novel Cat's Cradle includes a character who is an indexer who claims (I am taking this from Wikipedia) to be able to read an indexer's character through the index. I look forward to hearing what people think of my index. I have prepared indexes before -- I had a career in scholarly publishing before turning scholarly myself -- but this one was a hair tearing-out experience. Had I read Cat's Cradle I might have taken the indexer's advice never to index one's own book. Nevertheless, the work made me appreciate even more the general excellence of the book. Perhaps a reviewer will even note the excellent index!

There is a parody of an index in Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, reflecting the narrator's insanity. A final literary example is the novel House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski, which, among other unconventional attributes, includes a 200-page index of words in the novel. The Guardian reviewer called it "a satire of academic criticism." Well, at 709 pages, I am unlikely to read it.

Picture credits: Indianetzone; Avesta Archives

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