I should have known better. But when my publishers asked me if I wanted to prepare the index of my new book myself, or have them get a professional, I instantly said that I would do it myself.
The main reason was that I have, in the past, seen some really dreadful, so-called “professional” indexes (the kind where you are enticed by an entry to – say -- Virginia Woolf, only to find, on looking it up, some such phrase as “Born in the same year as Virginia Woolf, our hero….”). I also self-importantly thought that only I, as author, would be able quickly to identify the underlying themes that were most worth signalling (so making the kind of index that transcends the simple computer word search, and, at its best, gives a parallel intellectual structure to the book for an attentive index reader).
There was a hopelessly optimistic side to this too. I thought that at this last stage I would positively enjoy reading the whole typescript through, post-partally, for one last time, then sitting back to reflect on the main index-able themes. I was going to create an index-to-die-for.
I should have known better. For a start, I’ve done this before – and should know that those days of leisurely re-reading in an arm-chair never quite materialize; it’s always a rush. I had also read the long correspondence in the TLS at the end of last year, all about the pitfalls of indexing. That should have reminded me.
As it turns out, I’ve spent five days on it (for 440 pages of book), and actually I am not un-pleased with the result. But it hasn’t been remotely fun doing it.
First of all, there’s the re-inventing the wheel problem. If I was a (good) professional indexer, I’d already be up-to-speed on this. But in my apprentice-like state, I have to think through the basic questions of categorization from the bottom up. My book is about the Roman Triumph. So do I have hundreds of entries saying things like, “Triumph, origins of”, “Triumph of Lucius Aemilius Paullus”, or “Lucius Aemilius Paullus, triumph of” ….or what ? (Actually what I decided was to have a big sub-heading in the index in bold caps, saying TRIUMPH … and all those subheadings underneath, “origin of”, “chariot in”. “deification and”. . . and so on. Hope it works.)
But just as tricky was what to leave out. This is the Virginia Woolf problem. There are references all over the book to (for example) the historian Dio Cassius. Does each one need an index link? (“As Dio emphasizes, the triumph was . .. . “. ) Well, no – but how do you decide? The principle has to be: would any reader looking up a reference to Dio through my index actually want to arrive at this page? Which is fine in theory, but I can tell you that at midnight, and half a bottle of wine later, it can prove hard to make up your mind.
Then there’s the jokes. I’ve loved index-jokes ever since my friend Keith Hopkins slipped one into the index of his Death and Renewal. It ran, “Methods, authentication from fragmentary evidence, passim” -- with other entries for "speculation", "tautology" and "deviants, punished". I flirted with a few (“Ancient historical study, self-indulgent futility of, passim”, “Triumph, Roman, fun to study”) but rejected them -- mostly on the grounds that I couldn’t imagine enjoying them in two months time – let alone ten years time, when I hope the book will still be around. So I settled for a parody of, and homage to, my much missed friend, “'Facts', fragility of , passim”
Which just happens to be true as well.
PS. Unusually this blog comes with thanks: to Toby Lichtig, TLS internet maestro for putting the whole indexing correspondence onto a single link (enjoy it now you can, everyone!); and to the folks at Harvard University Press, for patience (inter alia).