In (Slight) Praise of Indexing


A few minutes ago, I submitted the index for my next book to my publisher. The task, one I have performed for all of my books that have indexes, is a pain in the neck. Just when you think you are done with everything and can turn to new projects, you have to buckle down and go through the text one final time–very carefully.

It’s no wonder that so many of us, especially academics who tend to be facing more tasks than they can possibly complete (it doesn’t matter if you are tenure-track or adjunct, the demands upon all of us are greater than they should be, even if different and in differing situations), turn to others when indexing is necessary. There are now professional indexers, people we can turn to when the added goal of indexing  proves just one bridge too far.

If it didn’t cost more than the usual advance I get for my books, I probably would have taken advantage of these indexers.

Yet I’m glad I haven’t.

Indexing, in each case, has provided me with something of a meta-view of the project just completed. It builds a picture something akin to the type Franco Moretti appreciates in his advocacy of ‘distant reading.’ That is, it allows us to stand back from the work, looking at the patterns our repetitions and sub-topic choices create. Through this, we can come to a final evaluation of what we have done while we even begin to see paths for future study.

There are plenty of other reasons we should index our own work. We know it best, after all, and should have a good idea of what readers looking into the index may be looking for–a better one, certainly, than a professional indexer or than any indexing software program can approximate.

Some of us will argue that we have better things to do with our time than construct indexes. I am not so sure. Not only do we deepen our own knowledge of the work we are in the process of completing, but we provide something more for our readers than what others can do.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I will ever approach indexing with much enthusiasm.

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