Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The index fund

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When the time comes to prepare the index for a nonfiction book, there are basically two schools of thought on how to proceed. One is that the author is the only person qualified to perform this particular task. You see this view expressed at its most eloquent by Douglas R. Hofstadter, who reveals in a long endnote in Le Ton Beau de Marot that completing the index for that book required him to work fifteen hours a day for an entire month. He explains:

My feeling is that only the author (and certainly not a computer program) can do this job well. Only the author, looking at a given page, sees all the way to the bottom of the pool of ideas of which the words are the mere surface, and only the author can answer the question, “What am I really talking about here, in this paragraph, this page, this section, this chapter?” To answer those questions takes total understanding of the book.

Hofstadter adds that going through the book one last time awakened him to deeper themes and concepts that he hadn’t known were there, including “conflation,” “colliding cultures,” and “Chopin.” He concludes: “Once the index was essentially done…I found it interesting to flip through it and, by comparing the sheer sizes of various entries, to get new perceptions of what my book is most centrally about.” At a point at which a writer might be expected to have looked at a manuscript from every angle, an index can be a fund of new insights.

Another vote in favor of the author comes from Isaac Asimov. For his first nonfiction book, the textbook Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, he unquestioningly prepared the index himself, despite having only “a vague idea of how it should be done.” He enjoyed the job—which consisted mostly of preparing a mountain of index cards, alphabetizing them, and typing up the result—and was annoyed by what he saw as a “more cavalier attitude toward indexing” among his collaborators. For the rest of the career, he aways insisted on doing his own indexes, and when A Short History of Biology was indexed without his knowledge, he wasn’t pleased:

I looked over the index, which had, presumably, been professionally prepared, to see if I could learn lessons in technique. I quickly found that the only lesson I could learn would be on the method of preparing a thoroughly inadequate index. Half the names in the book were not included. A number of subjects were not mentioned.

Asimov concluded that the index was “insupportable,” and after that, he was careful to make his preferences known to his editors: “It added just one more time-wasting task to the list. I had to see it that no publisher, either through ignorance or through forgetfulness, ever allowed a “professional” to prepare my indexes.”

Of course, there’s also a strong case to be made for the opposite point of view, which Asimov recalled hearing from Dick DeHaan, one of his editors at Basic Books: “I tried to explain that I liked indexing, but he kept saying that no writer could approach his own book with sufficient detachment to do a good index.” Asimov eventually acquiesced for The New Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, and the outcome left him predictably outraged:

It was dreadful; simply dreadful. It left out a great variety of things that should have been put in. It was the slapdash job of someone working for money instead of for his own book, and never again was I fooled by any talk of expertise in indexing. When I later discovered that I had been charged five hundred dollars against royalties for the privilege of having that rotten index made, I was ready to choke DeHaan.

Yet you could also argue that this detachment is necessary, a perspective most famously expressed by Kurt Vonnegut in Cat’s Cradle, which includes a chapter titled “Never Index Your Own Book.” It features a former professional indexer who informs the narrator that “indexing was a thing that only the most amateurish author undertook to do for his own book.” She continues: “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.”

Speaking from a position of minimal experience, I’d suggest that the best approach is to split the difference, and to have an outside indexer make the first pass, after which the author is given the chance to make modest additions and corrections. I’m currently in the process of doing this for Astounding, and it certainly satisfies me. (I once planned to do it all on my own, like Asimov, but I decided to let somebody else handle it, despite the fact that the cost would be taken out of my advance. This was partially because I liked the idea of a third party going through the book with an objective eye, and also because nobody at my publisher seemed to have even considered the possibility that I would want to do it myself.) The index that they’ve provided is a nice piece of work, and although I’ve caught a few errors and omissions, I’m glad that I left it to a professional. This is the last major task that remains in the writing of a book that has taken up three years of my life, and seeing it through the eyes of an ideally attentive reader—which is what an indexer should be—allows me to engage for hours on end in what Hofstadter calls “a very curious activity, and perhaps overly introspective in some people’s eyes, but irresistible for at least a little while.” It’s as close as I’ll ever get to reading this book for the first time, and although my engagement with this index wasn’t as intensive or prolonged as his was, I can only echo Hofstadter’s conclusion: “Doing this index, painful though it was, afforded me one last pass back through the text, tying things together for a final time, saying goodbye to a work created out of love, and with love, for words, ideas, people.”

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