U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Indexing: Issues Big and Small

bad-indexIs anyone game for a conversation about indexing? No, you said? Well tough. That’s what’s on my mind today. Indeed, it’s been on my mind for the last three weeks.

About three weeks ago I made the decision to do the index myself. More accurately, the decision was made for me when the combo indexer-proofreader I had hoped to contract couldn’t do my project. Because few do both, I had to allocate my resources to either a proofreader or an indexer. I hired the former, which left me with the latter.* (*These kinds of decisions explain why publishing ‘subventions’, offered by employers or helpful scholarly societies, exist. I was unfamiliar with the term until Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen thanked UW-Madison for one given to her in the process of finishing up American Nietzsche.)

This was purely an economic decision because, as an inveterate index user, I deeply appreciate the difference between good, mediocre, and bad indexes. Using book ‘reading’ techniques I first learned from Mortimer J. Adler in How to Read a Book, I always preview non-fiction works with a pre-“whole-to-parts” kind of skim/read. This involves reading the table of contents, the index, and long review of the notes. Most people don’t think of this as reading. For me (and Adler), it’s absolutely essential to understanding whatever complexity a book might present.

My publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, clearly anticipates that some of its authors will do their own indexing because they provide a helpful ten-page guide on the subject. The guide starts with two-to-three pages on philosophical approaches before diving into the expected technical issues (spacing, formatting, numbering, ordering, etc.). I read it twice. It was very helpful in terms of sorting out what I hoped my index could do for my (earnestly desired!) readership.

So I’ve been working on this for about three weeks. I began with on-and-off work, then it became a daily engagement. For the last week it’s been my second full-time job—to the point of my pulling an all-nighter* this past Tuesday. (Technically I got an hour of sleep between 5:30-6:30 am yesterday morning, which might disqualify me from all-nighter status. I’ll let the sleep-disorder doctors and sleep-hygiene folks sort that out.)

My deadline is tonight. I’m about 95 percent finished with my index. It’s going to be a fine index, I think. It’s really long: 44 d.s. pages, 6150 words. That’s more words than my first chapter. It sounds horribly lengthy, but I’m hoping it can be radically reduced through font size and column-cramming adjustments.

In case you’re curious, below is a sample of the ‘G’s in my index. Since my project is on the ‘great books idea’, I thought this might be the most interesting and representative sample. I still have a couple of chapters to detail this afternoon and tonight, but I think this approximates, fairly closely, the final form of that particular letter’s entries for my book. It gives a slice of the complexity with which I’ve dealt in my project.

Thoughts? What’s your experience with indexes—either as a reader or a writer? Complaints (i.e. the worst)? Praise (the best)? Given these questions, I can tell you a bit of irony about my own indexing project. Of all the non-fiction books I’ve read in my lifetime, the worst indexes—hands down—are those I’ve encountered in books authored by—…wait for it…—Mortimer J. Adler. The old Macmillan publishing house skimped so badly on Adler’s indexes that it’s impossible to effectively pre-read his books. And it’s a shame. I think it’s what has driven me to do a bang-up job with mine.

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Index Sample: The ‘G’s

(from The Dream of a Democratic Culture, due to appear November 19, 2013)

Galbraith, John Kenneth, 91, 101, 112,
Gargantua and Pantagruel (Rabelais, François), 65
Garrison, W.E., 53-5, 57
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., 1, 199, 204, 207-8, 210-13, 219, 225
Gateway to the Great Books (1963), 85, 86, 88, 150
Gayley, Charles, 14
Geertz, Clifford, 8, 119
gender, 74, 88, 160, 163, 174, 182, 188, 200, 206, 278n40
General Education in a Free Society, see Harvard Report
G.I. Bill, 95
Gilson, Étienne, 1, 23, 125, 151
Gish, Lillian, 25
Gitlin, Todd, 103, 293n4
Gleason, Philip, 26, 186
globalization (and globalism or world culture), 34, 35, 39, 55, 64, 87, 115, 117, 121, 126-7, 137-8, 142, 160, 161, 171-2, 174, 198, 201-2
– see also cosmopolitanism; modernity; United Nations; world federal government;
World War II
Godwin, William, 112
Goethe, 55
Goetz, Tom, 201, 207, 210, 216
Goldman, Emma, 112
Goodman, Paul, 112, 130
Goodman, Walter, 167
Gorman, William, 37, 51-2, 114, 138, 167
Graff, Gerald, 10, 11, 15, 17, 261n3
‘Great Books for Young People’, 88-9
Great Books Foundation (Chicago), 17, 19, 21, 35-7, 58, 66, 70-72, 74, 78, 88-9, 97-8, 130, 170, 180, 184, 188, 221
– coordination with Britannica, 78, 87-8
– international (or world), 71
– Junior Great Books program, 88
– reading group statistics (1940s, 1950s), 71
– shared inquiry, 9, 180, 192, 221
great books idea
– accessibility of (democratized), 6, 10, 14, 23-4, 31, 33, 44, 56, 58, 65-6, 81, 83, 95, 145, 176,
179, 193, 202, 224
– and ‘The American Dream’, 45, 95-6, 156-7
– canonical authors/works (see Appendices, as well as various titles and authors)
The Classical Tradition (1949), and idea of, 2, 55, 68
– commodification of, 12, 42, 57, 64, 77-8, 97-8, 202
– complexity of, 3, 31, 61, 98, 169-72, 224
– confusion with Britannica set, 98
– controversy about (and criticisms of), 1, 3, 31, 41, 54-8, 98, 191-219
– definitions of, 1-3, 98, 224
– enthusiasts’ dreamy utopianism, 7, 31, 34, 45, 62, 75, 96-7, 114-15, 121, 126, 129, 134, 142, 149, 151, 152, 156, 171, 185, 192, 219, 224, 225-6
– excellence and/or rigor, 1, 2, 3, 7, 12, 31, 41, 43, 57, 72, 91, 131, 152, 161, 164, 168, 170, 180, 188, 197, 198, 199-200, 211, 212, 223, 224
– no excerpts, 48, 221
– great books as primary texts/sources, 135-6, 142-3
– and history (or historical context), 3, 5, 14, 16, 35, 40, 58, 61-2, 90, 135-7, 141, 142, 151, 155-6, 164
– lists, 2-3, 11, 14, 27, 48, 69, 78, 88-9, 95, 97, 99, 144, 154, 165, 170-1, 176, 184, 192, 212, 221, 223-5
– literacy (lower and higher order), 1, 21, 22-34, 65, 88, 95, 119, 123, 142, 192, 212, 221, 227
– opening/expansion to underrepresented authors, 164, 197
– origins of, 1-2, 13-16, 23-4
– ossification and sacralization, 41, 72, 78, 146-9, 154, 208
– politics of, see great books idea, different approaches to
– as popular culture phenomenon, 19-20, 25, 35, 65, 81-2, 86, 89-91, 95
– production (publishers, paperbacks, sales), 11, 37-62, 72
– promoters, see Adler, Mortimer J.; community of discourse
– reading aids (affirm and deny), 48, 54, 86, 88
– reading groups (and discussion), 6, 9, 19-21, 24, 35, 45, 54, 69, 71, 88, 97, 197
– synonyms for, 2
– theory (or philosophy of), 6, 8, 37-62
– truth and error in, 153, 194
– world (or international), 144, 152, 215, 224
– see also Christianity; citizenship; critical thinking; education; Great Books Foundation; Great Books of the Western World; liberal education
great books idea, different approaches to
– General Honors approach, 22-4, 45, 67, 69, 91, 98, 134, 140, 170-1, 207, 224
– Great Books Conservatism, 40, 192, 224
– Great Books Guardian, 32-3, 177, 206, 216
– Great Books Ideologue, 191, 204, 206, 211
– Great Books Liberalism, 101-28, 134, 140, 153, 163-4, 170, 171, 178, 182, 191, 196, 206-7, 223-4
– Great Books Pluralism, 140, 160, 170-2, 191, 196, 200, 202, 206-7, 223-4
– Great Books Multiculturalism, 170, 174, 200, 224
– Great Ideas (Syntopical) Approach, 36, 39, 46, 52-3, 56, 58-62, 67, 69, 93, 98, 140, 170-1, 198, 200-2, 207, 212, 224
– Strauss/Bloomian approach, 68, 170, 192, 194-5, 199, 200, 223-4
‘Great Books Movement’, 13, 15, 19-36, 58, 156, 194
– see also Great Books Foundation
Great Books of the Western World (1952, or ‘Britannica set’), 4, 5, 36-100, 129-158
– accessibility, 77, 81, 86, 193
– advertising (and marketing), 45, 76-7
– aesthetics, 52, 56, 78, 80
– Advisory Board, 42, 48, 49-53, 56
– appeal to Christians, 74
– book choice five ‘musts’, 50
– book lists, 48, 50-1
– conception of, 43-7
– controversy (FTC), 149-51, 155
– culture and commerce tension, 65-66, 78, 83
– differences with Harvard Classics, 57
– ‘Founders Edition’, 37-8, 40
– as ‘furniture’ (or decoration), 41, 45, 57, 73, 96, 98, 146-8
– indexers, 51-2
– myth of selection certainty (consensus), 51-3, 55
– ‘Opuscula’, 49
– production of, 40, 51-53
– proposal for (Adler’s four stipulations), 47-9
– reader aides (cottage industry of), 82-3, 86-9
– reading in set, 92
– reviews and reception of, 53-57
– sales (abroad), 80, 133, 149
– sales (domestic), 37, 61, 63-100
– sales figures, 63, 75-80, 149, 202
– sales tactics (and FTC investigation), 63-4, 76, 77-9, 80, 94-5, 96, 133, 149-51, 165
– selection philosophy, 47-50, 52-3, 55, 56-7
– selections added, 87
– subjectivity v objectivity, 53, 61
– translations (volumes and set), 48, 54, 56, 80
– Waldorf Astoria dinner, 37-41, 52, 53, 59-64, 80
– works of math and science, 48, 54-5
– see also Benton, William; Federal Trade Commission; Great Conversation; ‘Great Ideas’;
Harden, Kenneth; Marplan Study; Syntopicon
Great Books of the Western World (1990), 4, 5, 201-16
– controversy, see reviews and reception (below)
– Library of Congress kick-off, 203-04, 207, 209, 213
– no ‘affirmative action’, 201
– production, 201-3
– review by John Blades, 203, 205-07, 208, 210, 213, 217
– review by Edwin McDowell, 203-4, 207-8
– reviews and reception, 203-16
– sales figures, 205, 216-17
‘Great Books Week’, 19-20, 35
The Great Conversation (1952 book and idea of), 6-7, 11, 37, 40-1, 47, 52-3, 60, 77, 82, 89, 102, 131, 153, 157, 170, 201, 204
The Great Conversation Revisited (1990), 213
A Great Idea at the Time (2008), 15
‘The Great Ideas’, 4, 5, 6-7, 36, 39, 43, 46-7, 51, 53, 59, 61, 67-9, 82, 86-7, 93, 122, 127, 131, 134, 140, 153, 156, 164, 166-7, 169-70, 171, 198, 200-02, 204, 207, 211, 212, 215, 221, 223,
– see also Syntopicon
The Great Ideas Program (1959-63), 86-7
The Great Ideas Program, vol. 1, A General Introduction to the Great Books and a Liberal Education, 87
Great Ideas Today (1961-1998), 79, 86-7, 114, 131, 149, 150, 171, 184, 202
– sales, 79, 87, 149
Greece (or Greeks), 2, 51, 55, 247
Greenberg, Clement, 12, 41, 73
Grunwald, Henry, 51-2, 90, 194
Guillory, John, 8, 262n12
Gwiazda, Ronald, 180-1
Gwinn, Robert P., 205-7, 216

4 Thoughts on this Post

    • Funny indeed. An explanation: The *Syntopicon* was originally supposed to be an “idea index,” and there were—at peak production—two houses of indexers for the 54-volume *Great Books of the Western World* (one in Chicago, the other in Annapolis, MD).

  1. Wow! I’ll be indexing my book pretty soon, and your “G” list makes me really not look forward to that task. I also think, and I could turn out to be totally wrong, that mine just won’t have as many subjects as yours. I also don’t use indexes very much, so perhaps don’t appreciate them fully.

    On the subject of notorious indexes, the one to John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice” comes to mind. Many have commented that the book’s incredible density and poor organization are mitigated only by its voluminous and detailed index. Rawls’s work played a prominent role in my own book. I had read it twice before, but feared I’d need to read it again just to find the particular points that I wanted to emphasize. By and large the index rescued me from that fate. So kudos to him!

  2. Sorry to burst your bubble so long after the fact. One of the cardinal rules of indexing is that you should avoid indexing the metatopic. Here, the metatopic is ‘Great Books’: you should have recast your entries so that your main headings were sub-topics of the metatopic. Otherwise, you might as well index: Great Books 1-600.
    Secondly, whenever you have more than five locators after an entry, you need to break your entry into sub-headings or create a set of more restrictive main headings. Given the large number of locators after many entries it may be that you were not being sufficiently rigorous in distinguishing indexable information from passing mention.
    Remember, an index is a directory of the concepts in the text, not a concordance listing the location of words and phrases.

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