I have a deep and irrational hatred of alphabetical order. Blame a maiden name (do we still say “maiden”? how archaic) that began with B. Jolted into response, I had no chance to take the temperature of the room or divine what adrenal challenge was about to traumatize me. I grew past it, only to find, on my, er, maiden voyage into the corporate world, that I had somehow committed the most grievous possible sin by sending a memo that was not in alphabetical order. And I had listed an underling first and buried the CEO in the middle.
Random can be dangerous. On the other hand, all order is random, in that it is imposed in arbitrary fashion. The first letter of a surname could just as easily be one’s height or assigned seat or time of arrival. Why not call roll backwards once in a while, or begin in the middle? What is so sacred about A then B then C?
Much as I love the words the alphabet makes, I find the solitary letters as dull as a cast-off brick lying dusty in the path, far from the archway its fellows have made. I could never marry a man who alphabetized his books on the shelves. Or his music, or his canned goods. Far more fun to organize by mood or theme or relevance, by the way something makes you feel or how you will cook with it or even how old you were when you bought it.
I kept my aversion to the alphabet secret, because it sounded irrational. Unhinged, even. Then I read Index, A History of the, Dennis Duncan’s delightful—why is there not a word for “book” that begins with D?—and learned that I have company. Scholars of the early Middle Ages hated alphabetical order, too, because it ignored all the subtle and intricate connections alive in a God-made universe. The point was to explore those connections and find their underlying order and harmony, not to resort to alpha.
Ancient Greece disagreed, insisting that the members of the cult of Apollo and Heracles be listed “according to letter in order from alpha.” Sherlock Holmes, to zoom forward a few centuries, kept an index that conjures a cabinet of wonders: “Victor Lynch, the forger. Venomous lizard or gila. Remarkable case, that! Vottoria, the circus belle. Vanderbilt and the Yeggman. Vipers, Vigor.”
Parts of the Hebrew Bible—some Proverbs, some Psalms, the Book of Lamentations—take their very shape from alphabetic acrostics, with the sequence of the alphabet determining the first letter of each verse. I rue my ignorance until I remember that what little Bible reading I have done was not in Hebrew; how would I have known?
There is much I never knew in Index, A History of the, whose subhead promises “A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age.” First, I never realized how jokey indexes could be, or how easily they could pop an overblown ego. Frenemies William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Mailer disagreed about whether Buckley should use their private communications in his book. When it was published, Mailer was sent a complimentary copy. Beside the index entry “Mailer, Norman, 259, 320,” Buckley had written in blood-red ballpoint, “Hi!” Because of course that was the first thing Mailer would do: look himself up.
Now we spend more time online and search by keyword instead. It is fast and efficient and maddening, because you cannot know ahead of time what the juiciest keywords will be. One glance at an index gives you an instant feel for the book’s content, its scope, its tone, what it contains that you never knew, and what it emphasizes (just count the number of page numbers). Index’s index summarizes the dilemma with: “Search engines, ubiquity and distraction.”
Often an old-fashioned print index is someone’s way into a book—a cheat literary purists despise, which may be why they moved the index from the front of the book to the back. In Shakespeare’s day, the index began the book, which makes sense of Gertrude’s exasperated comment to voluble Hamlet: “Ah me, what act,/That roars so loud and thunders in the index?”
For the laziest among us, though, the index is not so much a way in as a substitute for reading. Scholars will pluck tidbits from the index and quickly flip to the page and scribble a quote or two in order to sound learned. (I do this too.) Just look what you can learn from Robert Latham’s index to Pepys’s diaries:
BAGWELL,___, wife of William: her good looks, 4/222; P plans to seduce, 4/222, 266; visits, 4/233-4; finds her virtuous, 4/234; and modest, 5/163; asks P for place for husband, 5/65-6, 163; P kisses, 5/287; she grows affectionate, 5/301-2; he caresses, 5/313; she visits him, 5/316, 339; her resistance collapses in alehouse….”
For irony, you sometimes need only a single entry, like the one underlined in my copy of Augustine’s Confessions: “His mistress, 149.” Or the one in my husband’s copy of Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy: “Vietnam War, American values and.”
I pull out more books and check the back pages. There are surprises. A book about Aristotle indexes “tragic guilt,” of course—but also “centaurs,” “chaos,” “color,” “desire,” and “Hitler.” That last one, I have to look up. “If the protagonist were wholly evil, he would excite no pity,” the author explains on the cited page. “Hitler could hardly serve as the protagonist of a tragedy.”
Sartre’s Nausea has no index, which seems somehow significant.
The index to Patricia Meyer Spacks’s Boredom could provoke hours of conversation all by itself; it includes “adolescents,” “aristocrats,” “laughter as alleviating,” “men indulging in boredom but women suffering it,” “metaphor of suffocation for,” “narcissism of,” “and passivity,” “as sadism,” “as sign of superiority,” “as verbal convenience.”
Rich as the content can be, though, Jonathan Swift grumbled mightily about those who read only the index. I cannot fathom Alexander Pope’s tone—impish? snide?—when he added, “Index-learning turns no student pale.”
The index as shortcut is only possible with nonfiction, of course. Biographies, especially, are rich fodder for a professional indexer; John Updike is said to have declared most of them, “just novels with indexes.”
Rarely, anymore, is a work of fiction indexed—but could it be, and how? “By names and places, certainly,” Duncan writes. “What about things, the material world of the tale: the handkerchief in Othello, the ‘sweet lemony wax’ of the bar of Sweny’s soap in Ulysses? Or ideas, since literature is no doubt where much of a culture’s thinking happens. What about emotions?”
What, indeed? All those hours I have spent jotting strings of page numbers, flipping back and forth with one paper-cut thumb stuck in back of the book, and so many of the nonfiction indexes were bloodless. Useful, but bloodless.
A confession: after turning in a manuscript for a slight, tightly focused social history, I was asked whether I felt it needed an index, and instantly I said no. Exhausted and utterly sick of the topic, I had no wish to reread, jot down Important Nouns, and find the right description for their presence on that page. “Okay,” the publishing assistant said dubiously. “But we have software now that makes it really easy; we do it for you.” Suddenly the book was in desperate need of an index.
How jealous Virginia Woolf would have been. She compiled indexes regularly and once wrote to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, “If you had come in yesterday you would have seen me with the floor all strewn with little squares of paper, like the learned pig.”
She was doing it right, though, and I doubt she would have caved to software. Duncan lets us compare a flat, stale, perfunctory computer-generated index (only the alpha A entries) with his professional indexer’s tour de force at book’s end. “The difference in quality, in usefulness, is stark,” he notes.
“This index was created by Paula Clarke Bain, who is a professional indexer and a human being,” hers begins. She then elaborates the ideas, people, and history in the book with literate compression. She includes “Bain, Paula Clarke, …indexes herself, 254; non-robotic, superior index, 309-40.” And she has the fun you would expect, giving us “Snipe hunt see vain attempt”; “Sleeveless errand see snipe hunt”; and “Silliness 150, 151, 181, see also blubbing; bootless errand; comic indexes.”
But her best and truest entry might be one of the shortest: “service to the world, index as.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.