Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The art of the index

with 3 comments

Index of Le Ton Beau de Marot

Earlier this week, as planned, I finished the bulk of the background reading for my book Astounding. I’m far from done with the research process: there are still unanswered questions, gaps that need to be filled, and mysteries that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to solve. But I have a sense of the territory. I knew going in that I had to cover an immense amount of raw material in a limited amount of time, and from the beginning, I was forced to prioritize and triage based on what I thought would actually end up in the book—which doesn’t mean that there wasn’t still a lot of it. It included all of John W. Campbell’s published novels and stories; something like fifteen thousand pages of unedited correspondence; forty years of back issues of Astounding, Unknown, and Analog; and numerous secondary sources, including interviews, memoirs, and critical studies. I had to do much the same thing with Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, too, but with an important difference: I’m not the first biographer to tackle their lives, so a lot of the structural work had already been done, and I could make educated guesses about what parts would be the most relevant. When it comes to Campbell, however, enormous swaths of his life have never been explored, so I had no choice but to read everything. In the words of editor Alan Hathaway, which I never tire of quoting, I’ve tried to turn every goddamn page. Whenever I see something that might be useful, I make a note of it, trusting that I’ll be able to find it again when I go back to review that section at greater length. Then I have no choice but to move on.

And it’s only recently that I realized that what I’ve been doing, in essence, is preparing an index. We tend to think of indexes as standard features of nonfiction books, and we get annoyed when they aren’t there. (I note with interest that a different John Campbell—a British politician of the nineteenth century, and apparently no relation to mine—proposed that authors who failed to provide an index would be fined and deprived of their copyrights.) In fact, indexes originated as working tools that scholars prepared for themselves, and they tailored them for their individual needs. What I find useful in a book may not interest anybody else, especially if I’m reading with a specific problem in mind, which is why it makes sense for readers to maintain indexes of their own. As Harold Nicholson, another British politician, once said in a commencement speech:

My advice is to go to France, direct from New York to Cherbourg, and to remain there for at least three months, if possible living in a French family. My second piece of advice is always to mark your books and write a personal index for yourself on the flyleaf.

He’s right, of course, and I’ve been doing this for years without thinking about it. Now I’ve started to do it more deliberately, and I’ve gotten into the habit of transcribing those notes into a searchable text file, as an index of indexes that I can use to consolidate my entries and keep the whole mess under control.

Index for The Arabian Nights

It’s hard to write about indexes without thinking of a famous chapter in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, which is titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” As a professional indexer says to the narrator, evaluating another writer’s index:

“Flattering to the author, insulting to the reader,” she said. “In a hyphenated word,” she observed, with the shrewd amiability of an expert, “‘self-indulgent.’ I’m always embarrassed when I see an index an author has made of his own work…It’s a revealing thing, an author’s index of his own work…It’s a shameless exhibition—to the trained eye.”

I read this passage again recently with greater attention than usual, because the odds are pretty good that I’m going to end up indexing Astounding myself. (Here’s a tidbit that you might not know: if a publisher wants an index, the author has the right to prepare it, but if he declines—or does an unsatisfactory job—the publisher can hire someone else. The cost is deducted from the author’s advance, which means that there’s a decent financial incentive for writers to do the job themselves.) I’m also uncomfortably aware that Vonnegut is correct in saying that you can tell a lot about an author from his index. For an example that’s very close to home, I don’t need to look any further than William H. Patterson’s two-volume biography of Heinlein. Its index tells you a lot about Patterson himself, or at least about how he saw his subject, and I don’t have any doubt that my index will reflect on me.

But I also don’t think that anyone but the author has any business preparing the index. I’ve spent the last eight months compiling an index for a book that doesn’t exist: the unimaginable book that would include all the known details of Campbell’s life in their original form. (If you want to get really deep, you could say that a biography is the index of the man.) It bears the same relation to its sources that a graphical projection does to the original object: it translates it to a two-dimensional surface, losing some of its properties, but becoming considerably more manageable. The reason I’ve put it together, aside from reminding me of where various facts can be found, is to produce a rough sketch of the whole that I can review in its entirety. It condenses the available material into a form that I can reread over a relatively short period of time, which allows for the iterative review process that tells you what a book is really about. As John McPhee said of his notes to The Paris Review: “I read them until they’re coming out my ears.” And this is only possible if you’ve boiled them down to a set of labels. The author is the only one who can decipher it: it’s a coded message he writes to his future self. But when the time comes to prepare an index for the general reader, it invisibly reflects that ideal index that nobody else will ever see. Only the author, who knows both the words on the page and the unseen words that made them possible, can make it. You can sense this in the indexes for books as different as Sir Richard Francis Burton’s Arabian Nights or Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot. These indexes live. They tell you a lot—maybe too much—about the author. But that’s exactly as it should be. 

3 Responses

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  1. I can hardly wait to read the finished draft! This should be fun!

    marieguthrie

    October 14, 2016 at 9:46 am

  2. There’s also the possible danger that an index may be more entertaining and enjoyable than the story.

    galtz

    October 15, 2016 at 12:54 pm

  3. @marieguthrie: I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on it!

    nevalalee

    October 15, 2016 at 8:46 pm


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