The Intelligent Indexer’s Guide to YouTube

posted by SWC on November 17th, 2009 · Leave a Comment ·

For some time I have known that while doing certain kinds of work I have what I would call “excess attention.”  Unused or possibly unusable passive mentation.  My first responder brain cells are fully engaged, you understand.  It doesn’t matter whether I am writing or editing indexes or, in olden times, typing from hand-written index cards, I have unengaged and thus discontented neurons.

There was a time when I could absorb excess attention by turning on a TV movie channel and finding a film, preferably one that I had seen many times, because there were no unexpected twists in the story that I would need to think about.  British films did the job well, especially wartime sea stories like In Which We Serve or The Cruel Sea, or any movie with Jack Hawkins for that matter. Comedies with Margaret Rutherford or Alistair Sim were also charming, sustaining company, and like a Rachmaninoff concerto they never wore out.  When the movie channels stopped showing films like these I felt I had been cut adrift; then I discovered YouTube.  It was something else.

YouTube covers the broadest of cultural and political spectra.  Since its birth in November 2005 it has grown hourly into a giant of incalculable size.  Acquired by Google, Inc. a year later, it now serenely delivers the entire Dantean gamut from blessed genius down through the depths of breathtakingly aggressive idiocy.  It tells us where we are, have been, and might be going.  Another infant of the Information Age stomping around like a disoriented brontosaur.

It is easy enough at any hour to find a video on YouTube that will serve as a work-friendly companion.  The thing is to observe a few cautions.  Settle on a piece that will answer to your mood, and be ready to navigate to parts two, three and beyond if the selected work is longer than five or ten minutes.  Do not be distracted by the comments of other viewers, which range from the occasionally helpful to the churlishly juvenile.  And unless your mood is adventuresome rule out travels through the labyrinthine linkages, the “related videos” that can drive your attention from composition to composer to performers to interviews and on to venues new and unrelated to your original plan.  But then again why not?  Take a few minutes to visit Earth.

For instance, I have stumbled on: an animated version of the Gypsy Chorus from Verdi’s La Traviata in which loping desserts march on and victoriously decorate an operatically guarded cake; a short and very funny play about tech help requested by a medieval monk; a ride through Barcelona in 1908 filmed from the front of a trolley; Helen Mirren playing the best of Rosalinds in As You Like It; Leonard Bernstein conducting Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G from the piano in a dazzling Parisian performance; Laurinda Almeida, the outstanding Brazilian classical guitarist, playing Manha De Carnaval, the jazz/bossa work featured in Black Orpheus; Vladimir Horowitz bringing tears to the eyes of Muscovites in playing Schumann’s reliably heart-rending Traumerei; and John Edwards doing not much else besides playing with his hair while we listen to “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story.  Bernstein again.

Below are the videos of the animated Gypsy Chorus and the last movement of Ravel’s Concerto in G, mentioned above.

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Trivia, Some Context On

posted by SWC on November 1st, 2009 · 2 Comments ·

Trivia. This is a topic that I have been meaning to write about for months.  Indexers collect trivia by the bushel: the oddments, scraps, crumbs, and often the unintentionally remembered leavings of their daily work.  They are known to inflict it on each other or anyone else who might be listening.

Trivia should not be confused with small talk, nor is it to be found in merely obscure facts; every obscure fact belongs to someone who may cherish it or at least find a professional use for it, and small talk is usually the right size for the occasion and the speaker.  Trivia is information that has lost its pertinence, gone astray.  It is a fact without context, prized only as a fact.

Trivia  is knowing for the sake of knowing, but  not understanding.  Trivia is a natural fit for board games, miscellaneous compilations, quiz shows, crossword puzzles, and bloodless knowledge duels.  It is information  liberated from the tyranny of thought.  It is the residue Q and the A of the Information Age.

Who was both the youngest and oldest secretary of defense?  With whom did Wendell Willkie have a romantic liaison in China?  Who was Britain’s longest serving prime minister?  What did Nixon do on this date (October 23) in 1973?  These are a few of the questions I have been asked by one indexer who, by the way, keeps a calendar listing anniversaries of historic events for each day.   Of course, I don’t always have an answer, but I am usually ready with a sly rejoinder like “OK, who invented the fountain pen?”  Trivia games.

Trivia questions are typically head-slappers, eliciting the “Oh I knew that ” response.  But there are many other questions that fill up books (sometimes called “nonbooks”) with information that might seem to the casual reader as appealingly useless as the characters in a Seinfeld episode.   I possess a pile of such books that I have been unable to give away and can’t bring myself to throw out.  One is Durations, subtitled “The Encyclopedia of How Long Things Take” ( Stuart A. Sandow et al., eds.) which  begins with the time it takes light to travel across a proton.  (Many many zeroes after the decimal point.)  A student of physics might be considering that datum even now.  For others it is microtrivia.   Further on, under “twenty minutes,”  the reader comes to the time required for death by hanging, an isolated piece of information which might only concentrate the mind of someone expecting to be hanged at daybreak.

“Ten to Fourteen days ” is the time a patient is advised to wait before resuming normal sex after a hemorrhoidectomy,  a fact obviously significant to those who have had or may soon have that  operation and who also engage in normal sex,  but not others for whom it is likely to be a  homeless fact, make of it what they will.

You can’t entirely blame indexers for spilling over with trivia .  Their baggage of scattered facts is a useful resource when every week or so brings a new set of topics to organize.  Still I find myself wondering–if an indexer in a forest should ask a trivia question and there were no one there to answer, would the indexer exist?


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Amory’s Game

posted by SWC on October 21st, 2009 · 1 Comment ·

There are two classes of opponents that average chess players seek to avoid.  There are those who can be easily defeated and consequently do not offer an interesting game.  Then there are the much superior players with whom it may be difficult to get a game in the first place, even if you don’t mind being crushed and humiliated.  But chess talents are not static; if you play often enough you get better, and so the ideal opponent is someone who is about at your level, though preferably somewhat more advanced for the sake of the challenge and the improvement of your game.  Victories with such players, though infrequent, are sweet.

My friend and colleague for a time, Cleveland Amory was just such a player.  We met while I was doing editorial research.  I would spend several afternoons working at the New York Public Library doing what would now take an hour or two on the Internet.  Amory needed help with his third book on Society.  He took the view that the better, older names were giving way to the newer cheaper sort of publicity-driven celebrities.  The title of this book was Who Killed Society? Later we worked together with Earl Blackwell and friends on the Celebrity Register.  To be included in this biographical dictionary its subjects were required to be alive, not to have broken any serious laws (political troubles excepted), and to be sufficiently well known.

Amory’s nickname was “Clip,” but I preferred to call him by his two-syllable first name with just a touch of stress on the second syllable.  He once told me that the columnist, Westbrook Pegler said, “If you’ve got a Pullman-car first name like mine use it.”  Amory was a tall, affable man with baby-smooth skin who would sometimes bite on his handkerchief while studying the chessboard.

When we played chess in Central Park he would bring along his pet toy poodle, Tiger to whom he would offer comments on the key events of our game.  “He thinks he’s pinned our castle, Tiger, but that’s a big fat nothing.”  Tiger was small enough for Amory to hold closely snuggled against his cheek.  I kept a fawn Great Dane named Phoebe who I usually left at home in Brooklyn Heights.  There were times when I thought it might improve my game if Phoebe were at my side.  As it happened, Amory beat me more often than I beat him.  I expected that.  We eventually parted over the disappointments that are known to befall young people when they attach themselves to the glamored famous with expectations of future advancement.  But that is another story.

Our last game was held in the Harvard Club.  Norman Cousins and Amory’s other friends would drift by for a while, shake their heads as if they had something to tell us if they could and then drift off. This game was our longest.  I had a strong intuition that I was going to win, and when I discovered that I was looking at the game-ender I could scarcely conceal my excitement.  After I made the move, which soon put me considerably ahead in material, I stared at Amory expecting him to resign, but he did not turn his eyes away from the board, his handkerchief half in his mouth as if preventing the possibility that he might do harm to his teeth.  My thoughts were no longer on the game. Occasionally I would exchange smiles with those in the small cocktail-hour crowd that now clustered around our table.  And then Amory made his move.

Riding home to Brooklyn on the subway that evening I had plenty of time to put together the pieces of my disaster.  I had traded away my position for material advantage and left myself open to Amory’s unexpected and fatal counterattack.  Chess, I soon concluded, was a game that was not worth playing unless you could play it well, really well, a minority opinion I am aware.  I replayed that game in my mind for months after, but have long since mercifully forgotten it.  I have not forgotten Amory who died in 1998 and is remembered most famously as an animal-rights activist. A fellow Virgoan, he would have made, I suspect, an excellent indexer.


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Shakespeare’s Notebook

posted by SWC on October 19th, 2009 · Leave a Comment ·

The current Broadway production of Hamlet is another reminder of its reputation for theatrical trouble making.  The play defies classification.  It is Shakespeare’s longest play and infamously difficult to edit.  It is like a jigsaw puzzle with either too few or too many pieces.  It has “superfluous and inconsistent scenes,” complained T. S. Eliot writing about “Hamlet and His Problems” in 1919.

Hamlet is about itself and it is about its author.  It asks questions which it doesn’t answer.  It has inspired interpretation and commentary of Talmudic proportions.  But it is a remarkable vehicle for the most expressive and thoughtful language that poetry has to offer.

When I got home after the performance of Jude Law and cast I dived into bed, reached for the paperback copy of the play on my night table, and flipped through its pages, reading passages randomly:

“I tell thee, churlish priest,/A ministering angel shall my sister be/When thou liest howling!” Electricity.

“And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,/. . .Now see that noble and most sovereign reason/Like sweet bells jangled. . .”

I read Hamlet as I read the diaries and notebooks of the great storytellers.  Later writers drew a distinction between what they would confess to their journals and what they would present to their world audience in their more formal works.  Thanks to her diaries we know how painfully Virginia Woolf suffered from postpartum depression  when she finished her novels. “Nothing seems left to do.  All seems insipid and worthless.”  Franz Kafka wrote in 1914 that he has taken time off from his office job to push ahead on The Trial, but after three days of writing “little and feebly,” he asks himself, “Are these three days enough to warrant that I am unworthy of living without the office?”

And Hamlet ?  In the middle of his career, at the Elizabethan-Jacobean cultural divide, and close in time to the death of his own father, Shakespeare touched on matters that are personal, professional, social, and broadly philosophical with explicitness and immediacy.  Hamlet is bursting with information and accumulated wisdom on mortality and morality, on melancholy and despair, on the many shadings of madness, on the stresses of family relationships.

This is also a play made up of book titles, the darling of quotologists.  It is a guide to puns and wordplay, snappy comebacks and over-the-head insults.  There are essays on friendship and fidelity, statecraft and stagecraft.  It is a model and introduction to the Jacobean drama of the malcontent revenger and the corrupt court.  It is the last word on the Renaissance world view.  It is the closest one can get to the living Shakespeare.  It is a great read.


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Indexing FAQs

posted by SWC on September 23rd, 2009 · 1 Comment ·

Editor’s Note: The following FAQs were selected and answered by indexing dean Philo del Sorto.

Has a film ever been based on an index?

Aside from suggestively titled movies like Alfie (1966), the nearest an index has come to taking its place in film history is The Alphabet Murders (1965) which was based on an Agatha Christie mystery featuring Tony Randall as the Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot.  The killer appears to have been a faux indexer who persisted in dispatching his victims in alphabetical order.  I don’t recall if he used cross-references.

A thriller with a similar title, The Alphabet Killer (2008) cannot really be categorized with index-inspired movies:  the victims were selected because their first and last names began with the same letter. The title of this film should have been The Alliterative Killer, or something like that.

I’ve often thought of writing a who-done-it in which the murderer is actually a professional indexer.  My principal problem is that I can’t think of what might motivate the perpetrator.  Ideas anyone?

Another film buff asks: Has a film been known to criticize an index?

The answer would of course be the recent Julie & Julia (2009) in which the index for The Joy of Cooking is taken to task.  Incidentally, cookbook indexes seem to be easy, but they are not. And that is because they look so easy.

And someone would like to know who was the first author to ban excessive cross-references from his indexes?

That would be Count Dracula, I believe.

Another reader asks how indexers are able to deal with books on so many different topics.

“By indexing books on many different topics” is the usual answer, but indexers often admit to forgetting much of what they have read in previous assignments. Nevertheless, they are likely to be an over-educated lot in the first place, and forgetting a few things wouldn’t hurt.

The next question. . . Is there a difference between an index and a table of contents?

. . .Which is a kind of Lewis Carroll question probably intended to trap me.  But I am going to say that there is a difference.  One is in the front of the book, and the other is in the back of the book.  Ah. . . Unless the book is printed in Hebrew or Urdu, in which case the opposite is true.  I have time for one more FAQ, but I must make the answer brief.

This reader wants to know if indexes are done by computers or actual human beings.

The answer is–Neither.  We do them here in Pleasantville.

Please don’t hesitate to send in your questions, however sensible they may be.

Until next time,

P. del Sorto


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Of Courage and Cowardice

posted by SWC on September 20th, 2009 · Leave a Comment ·

Another anniversary of 9/11 has passed. Along with memories of the physical events of that day, I still recall the conceptual haze that filled the air like the spreading column of dark smoke rising from the twin towers. I have been thinking this past week of the onset of this decade’s semantic wars. Book indexers, after all, are sometimes among the first to notice the shifting terminological winds.

You may remember that writing in The New Yorker the late Susan Sontag saw 9/11 not as a “cowardly” attack, not a day of infamy, not a Pearl Harbor. Others did and do, of course, but Sontag saw the attack as “a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.” For Sontag and others the new president made his first serious linguistic blunder in calling the suicide attackers of al-Qaeda “cowardly.” Weren’t they martyrs surrendering their lives for a cause? A cause is a cause.

I had a thought about my own inner (and outer) cowardice some years ago when I was assigned by the Army newspaper in Manila to fly with some other newsmen over a live and smoking volcano, Mount Mayon, in southern Luzon. As our B-25 swooped over the crater I found myself wondering what might happen to us if there were to be an inconvenient blast of hot cinders from directly below.

More to the point, I was asking myself why I was not really frightened. This is how I understood it at the time: I was not responsible for my own life. I did not belong to myself, not to my parents or to any individual. I belonged to the Army. If dread there must be, let it be the Army’s dread. Absurd? Well, possibly absurdist. We’ll check that reassignment of responsibility with Camus presently.

A few months ago I thought of that experience when I came to the last lines of Saul Bellow‘s first novel, Dangling Man (1944). Joseph, the protagonist, is at last drafted into the Army after months of unsettled , unemployed and troublesome waiting; he writes in his notebook, “I am no longer to be held accountable for myself. . . I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom canceled… Long live regimentation!”

In The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus writes of mystics and slaves as not belonging to themselves. Mystics find freedom “by losing themselves in their god, by accepting his rules, they become secretly free,” and “the slaves of antiquity did not belong to themselves. But they knew that freedom which consists in not feeling responsible.”

Interesting too is Shakespeare’s “warlike Harry” (Henry V); in disguise he debates three soldiers before the battle of Agincourt on the divided moral responsibility of king and subject, insisting that although a subject’s soul in wartime is his own (and answerable only to God) his duty (and his life) he owes to the King.

In the turbulent nineteenth century the true radical’s soul is surrendered as well as his physical being. Consider the opening lines of The Revolutionary Catechism by Mikhail Bakunin and Sergey Nechayev; the radical revolutionary is armed with the discipline required to do whatever must be done to bring down the established order: “The revolutionary is a doomed man. He has no personal interests, no affairs, no sentiments, attachments, property, not even a name of his own. Everything in him is absorbed by one exclusive interest, one thought, one passion–the revolution.”

Of course, today’s religious extremists expect to find a personal reward in the hereafter. A post-existential advantage? However they did it, in overcoming their natural fear of death they were able to end the lives of several thousand souls who had other plans for that sunny September day .

Back to Sontag. “In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue),” she wrote, “whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.” And so “courage” in the postmodern lexicon is value neutral, but “cowardly” is insulting. Or–since war was on the way, was Sontag thinking of Churchill’s “When you have to kill a man it costs nothing to be polite”? Death and good manners. No matter. In condemning the attack as “cowardly” Bush like previous leaders was undoubtedly speaking with the full force and authority of definition #2 in the Unabridged Random House Dictionary: “…despicably mean, covert, or unprincipled.”


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Fire Leaf

posted by SWC on September 10th, 2009 · 2 Comments ·

A few days ago I joined June Bissell, George Tuesday and P. del Sorto at the Pleasantville Diner for breakfast.  Ordered the usual eggs over well, crisp bacon, and home fries.  While Rhonda, the waitress, poured the coffee, George asked me when he could expect the next installment of Indexing Life.  June said that I was possessed by a demon who found countless ways to lure me away from writing.  Del Sorto shrugged and said it reminded him of an Alex Gregory cartoon he saw taped inside the window of the now defunct Chappaqua Bookstore:

Two dogs are talking.  One says “I had my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking.”

I denied that my barking was incessant.  June asked if I intended to publish the poem that Paul Blackburn sent to me with the letter which appeared in my last blog.  I sipped some coffee in silence and then promised to write about it.  The story is what it is, a bit odd perhaps, but here goes.

The poem that I had kept for so long turned out not to be the one that Paul mailed to me with his letter.  That poem may have been published in an issue of Shades that was distributed while I was away in service.  Can I confirm that?  Not quite.  I don’t have all the issues that were published back then.  (Could it be that I kept only those issues in which my own poems appeared?)  I’ve researched Paul’s early poems, and I don’t find a better explanation.  So whose poem was it that trailed after me for years with Paul’s letter?

Just before publishing the poem, along with Paul’s letter and my introduction, I searched for its opening lines on the Internet to make sure that the poem had never been published.  A last check. I found them easily.  Thank you Google (.33 seconds).  “Though he has watched a decent age pass by /A man will sometimes still desire the world.”  The second verse begins with “Not to be born beats all philosophy.”

These lines, as you may know, are from Sophocles, a choral ode in Oedipus at Colonus. I learned that my version was written by Robert Fitzgerald, and I have no idea how that typed, single-page excerpt found its way into the envelope with Paul’s letter.  The letter of course I published. The poem no.

Paul was a natural poet. I respected his work enough to believe that he could have written those dark lines from Sophocles.   Although he had a comedic view of life Paul often spoke in bitter ironies.  Here in evidence is a “love poem” that may be near in feeling to the one Paul sent with the letter.

FIRE LEAF

The time will come when this will end,
when whatever this is, or was, will fold
inward like a leaf crumpled in fire,
writhing to the certain ash,
flung in gentle air to fall
like snow out of season.
Consult no star nor safe philosopher
to ask the reason.  We both shall bear witness
to the bright, warm patterns of the list of days
and find bitterly in fire the certain fitness.

“Fire Leaf” was published in Shades at the end of 1947.  Did the poem ever appear again? I don’t think so.


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Paul Blackburn: Letter from a poet

posted by SWC on August 30th, 2008 · 1 Comment ·

During my first year at NYU, I joined a group of university wags who thought it might be fun to satirize the “little magazines” of the day with a mimeographed production of their own. We called it Shades probably because we were unable to think of a more pretentious title. But it wasn’t long before we and other students who wanted to write poems and point to them in print saw Shades in a different light. For about two years, Shades survived as a “little magazine” itself despite our inexpert typing and carefree stapling.

One of our contributors was Paul Blackburn, a friend then 19 years old and a poet of uncommon understanding, as I think will be evident from the letter that follows. It was sent to me as an editor of Shades while Paul was attached to an army hospital. I was about to leave for a military experience of my own, and the letter ended up in a box with other college papers that trailed after me through many moves and venues. The letter refers to a poem that is worth a post if its own.

Paul died in 1971 after a short, but well-used life, a poet and translator of significant accomplishment and influence. Not long ago, during a determined effort to clear out a lifetime of detritus, I found the letter, long forgotten. It follows without further commentary.


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Botanical Note: S. arboricola

posted by SWC on August 18th, 2008 · 1 Comment ·

I have been trying to think of a handy little definition of “myth” that would explain my 20-year relationship with a favorite plant, the Schefflera arboricola, commonly called an “umbrella plant,” which provides a leafy green barrier between a sliding glass door and my living room.

First, a few details. Over time, I have learned exactly how much water, light, and most important, caring attention S. arboricola wants. I have also learned how to interpret what I at first thought were merely its crotchets–not too subtle signals telling me where it needed to be placed, which botanical neighbors it cared to be seen with, and when it was being attacked by a deadly enemy like scale or spider mites. What signals? Wilting, yellowing, or falling leaves, absence of growth, and even the odd jab in my ribs from one of its pointy leaf tips.

What makes it happy? S. arboricola appears to be happiest when it is given a job to do, for instance supporting the holiday decorations that I hang along its twiggy but sturdy branches. Moreover, I believe it has a reliable sense of when significant occasions arise–an important holiday, my birthday, or our anniversary; then it produces clusters of new baby umbrellas or its frankly unusual flowers, which appear in long panicles from one end of the plant to another. These, I should tell you, ooze a viscous fluid that drips down to the carpet where, I suppose, it expects propagation to occur. I think this indicates that it is indeed happy.

S. arboricola
and I have found a balanced means of modifying each other’s behavior, and that , I think, qualifies us as a relationship. For my part, I have become less skeptical about plant sentience, and that thought may be the signal for me to return to my useful definition of “myth.” Here I am thinking of myth not as a commonly held misconception or a culturally supportive belief system, but rather as an emotionally or aesthetically satisfying interpretation of data.

If you want to follow up on scientific support for plant intelligence, such as it is, the Internet yield is of course abundant. Wikipedia provides an article on “Plant perception (physiology),” a good starting point. Look there also for a short piece on “Phenotypic plasticity,” a term that I could not shake myself free of for an entire day, but it did help me to understand how S. arboricola and I may have learned to adjust to each other. See also in Annals of BotanyAspects of Plant Intelligence” by Anthony Trewavas; in WiredSmarty Plants: Inside the World’s Only Plant-Intelligence Lab” by Nicole Martinelli. Last and hardly least is The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird, published in 1973 and a continuing influence.

But now, back to my own plant and its singular ways. The only thing we really differ on is musical taste. Everyone knows that Mozart is beneficial for babies, plants, and music lovers, but S. arboricola prefers Elliott Carter. Now that I find really inexplicable.

One other thing, on rare occasions S. arboricola has formed some sort of relationship with another plant. This has never troubled me. For instance, last Christmas I placed a brilliant scarlet poinsettia on top of a nearby bookcase, inches from one of S. arboricola‘s outstretched branches. The poinsettia flourished and lived far longer than I would have expected. I cannot say if the two plants had something going, but when at last the poinsettia began to lose its leaves I thought it best, one night, to whisk it away; the next morning I was unable to resist the thought that S. arboricola was asking, “What happened to the redhead?”


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The Nine Bad Moves of Indexing: Part Two

posted by SWC on August 5th, 2008 · 1 Comment ·

The Nine Bad Moves of Indexing

(and How to Avoid Them)

by J. Bissell, P. del Sorto, and G. Tuesday

Part Two: Moves 6-9

6 ) Do not underindex. Your decision about how much to index is likely to be based not only on your practiced sense of what the readers of your assigned book are entitled to access, but also on the “specs,” or length of the index, a piece of information you will want to have on hand when you start indexing. If you do not think the number of lines and characters per line are adequate, it is your responsibility to explain the problem to your editor in the hope that you will soon hear news that will make your task lighter. (We recommend that indexes for most books requiring actual thought should work out to about five percent of the book’s length in number of pages.) If you find you are short-changed on length, do your best to make every entry count and use all or nearly all the lines you are given.

Indexers have been known to come up short because of deficiencies of patience rather than space. Some indexers highlight key terms throughout a chapter or the entire text, then return and index them incompletely, because they have now lost touch with what the author is saying. Or they may think that by indexing haphazardly, dart-board style, they are saving valuable time when they are really wasting it.

7 ) Do not overindex. It is generally thought that this stricture arises from the least villainous of indexing faults. After all, if the index runs over space limitations some skillful person, perhaps the indexer, can always cut it down to size. This statement is true as far as it goes. But if an index needs to be trimmed by say 25 percent of its length (not uncommon) this can be a time-consuming process especially when it is necessary to check or recheck the text before making deletions or removing subentries consistent with the overall plan of the index. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” Emerson wrote. The consistency sought by indexers with minds of any description is not foolish; it is intended to make it possible for a reader immediately to grasp the system of selection and presentation which informs the entire process.

Indexers are often cautioned not to select “passing references,” but deciding what is a passing reference is a problem which vexes both the experienced indexer and the novice. The answer is relative to the text, and very much dependent on what the particular book in hand requires. Naturally, think twice before indexing long lists of names which begin with a phrase like “such as.” Indexers need to sense out what will please the author. This is at times difficult. Some authors confuse the intrinsic “greatness” of a famous name with its significance in their narrative. For instance, an author of a history of rock ‘n’ roll wanted to know why Aeschylus was not indexed although he was referred to somewhat figuratively in a sentence that began “Ever since Aeschylus.”

8 ) Have a plan. Do not plunge into indexing without finding out as much about the author’s viewpoint as time permits. Preindex. Make notes on the author’s favorite topics so that you can begin entering them starting with the first page. Check out the indexes of the author’s previous books. Is the current book thick with proper names? Does your indexing instinct (or the editor) tell you that the author wants every name indexed? Which names do not need to be indexed? And, of course, how are notes and illustrations to be treated? Plan ahead, which may be a redundancy, but it’s worth repeating.

Much of this work can be combined with the indexer’s first task after unbanding the page proofs–certifying that all the pages are on hand along with any special instructions from the author or editor. Ignoring or misplacing these instructions would indeed be a bad move, but we are assuming that this is a move so patently hideous that it does not need to be included in our enumerated list. The same might be said about being late with your index, or, worse still, much worse, phoning or emailing your editor on or near the due date with the news that your dog ate the index. Planning also means allocating enough time each day so that your index is not late; and it is well to remember that one hires a professional to reduce, not to intensify one’s anxieties.

9 ) Query judiciously. Do not forget to inform the editor of any text errors that affect the index, for instance, proper names that are likely the same, but are spelled or formed differently in the text. We call them ASOKs because the query following the index entries on your query list reads: Assumed same. OK? This should be followed by your information source. If two proper names or concepts are conflated in the text, the appropriate query together with its documentation is an ISOK: Indexed separately, OK? Necessary queries also include misspelled names, text discrepancies, missing text, and flat-out errors of fact that might not have been caught by the author or editor.

If you are an experienced indexer, on the other hand, it should not be necessary to query your editor on the indexing forms of names you have chosen or, usually, to refer the editor or author to your source for missing first names or titles. The same is true for dates that you add to treaties, summit conferences, or legislative acts. Avoid killing editors with kindness, but in the event that you are asked for any of these details be ready to supply them from your well-organized notes. And this bit of advice concludes the nine bad moves of indexing.


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