Winter 2013-2014

Indexes, in Praise of

Last but not least

Sasha Archibald

“Make a long arm, Watson, and see what V has to say.” I leaned back and took down the great index volume to which he referred. Holmes balanced it on his knee, and his eyes moved slowly and lovingly over the record of old cases, mixed with the accumulated information of a lifetime. “Voyage of the Gloria Scott,” he read. “That was a bad business. … Victor Lynch, the forger. Venomous lizard or gila. Remarkable case, that! Vittoria, the circus belle. Vanderbilt and the Yeggman. Vipers. Vigor, the Hammersmith wonder. Hullo! Hullo! Good old index. You can’t beat it.”
—Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire,” 1927

The book index, that handy back-end compendium that matches subject with page number, is by nature modest and self-effacing. Like its twin namesakes—the forefinger and the needle on a dial—the index points elsewhere, deflecting attention toward the subject of inquiry. A good index does not advertise, promote, or flaunt itself, but crisply details a series of perfect routes, from heading to subheading to page number to morsel of information. The less time spent considering the index, the better the index.

And yet, the apparent humility of the form is deceptive, for indexes are never as neutral or silent as they promise to be. More so than other finding aids, indexes retain the imprint of a handmade object, constantly wavering between objective schematic and subjective commentary. Indexes proceed from a book, on which they parasitically subsist. Yet, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, indexes exercise autonomy, parsing out which queries will be answered and which will be ignored, which passages will be a destination and which will be left to the roadside, using one word or two to identify the true subject of a passage of text.

Even the most traditional index murmurs about the book to which it is attached. In a glance, an index gives a sense of the density of the writing, the time span of the book, the erudition of the author. Upon closer inspection, it reveals the shape, character, and scope of a book’s argument, whether the author’s style is brisk or digressive, light-hearted or grave, focused or eclectic. An index can have a foreboding effect (“hermeneutic, discussion of the Cartesian ontology of the ‘world’”; “potentiality-for-Being, factical”1) or it can intrigue (“Apple-tree, barren women roll under, to obtain offspring”; “Clothes, magic sympathy between a person and his”2). An opinionated index might continue the book’s invective or subtly pervert it; it might even dare to work at cross-purposes to the text: “King see Treason”; “Title see Pretended Title.”3 Heeding the experience of a colleague, Lord Macaulay demanded of his publisher, “Let no damned Tory index my book!”4 An airy index gives the impression of vacuous content, and a dense one of heft and breadth. William Clarke complimented the indexer of his book on coins in 1767: “What a flag, too, do you hang out at the stern! You must certainly persuade people that the book overflows with matter, which (to speak the truth) is but thinly spread.”5 Indexes usually condense and foreshorten, but they are occasionally loquacious; John Ruskin, for instance, used his indexes to ruminatively amend and correct his texts. (“Artists are included under the term workmen, [page] 11, 8; but I see the passage is inaccurate,—for I of course meant to include musicians among artists, and therefore among working men; but musicians are not ‘developments of tailor or carpenter.’ Also it may be questioned why I do not count the work given to construct poetry, when I count that given to perform music; this will be explained in another place.”)

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.