Index Phobia

Well, according to The Daily Beast, the latest trend in torturing status-climbers in our nation’s capital is to omit the indexes at the end of political best-sellers.  What this means, in case you’re not a D.C. player, is that you can no longer streak to the end of a book to see whether you’re mentioned in it.  In fact, you are actually going to have to read “books” like Going Rogue by Sarah Palin to see whether you’re mentioned in it.

Oh, the pain.  The word on the street is that this is a passive-aggressive little act to tweak the sensibilities of the power-hungry.  It’s a conspiracy.

God, I hate conspiracy theories.  I have a hunch that the same people who find conspiracies everywhere are the same people who fix you with a soulful and bovine look when you get diagnosed with cancer and intone, “Well, they say there’s a reason for everything.”  They find meaning, I find chaos, our conversations never last very long.

In the missing-index conspiracy theory, though, I have a very simple explanation: Putting an index together is horrifyingly, numbingly boring.  Somebody somewhere simply got a smart idea for once and decided to deep-six the whole idea.  Why bother?  Why torture some peon with having to come up with an index?  Why not skip it?

Listen, for once I know what I’m talking about.  When I was young and neurotic — which I firmly maintain is worse than being old and neurotic — I worked for several months as a legal indexer at the Michie Publishing Company in Charlottesville, Virginia.  I almost lost my mind.

I was supposed to sit in a chair and dictate the index into some kind of recording device.  I was horrible at it, I loathed it, I hated it, I wanted to die.  That was the year I learned to smoke, which some people might find horrifying, but it was really the only positive aspect of the experience.  At least it kept me going.  When I finished a line or two of indexing, I rewarded myself with a cigarette and tried to ignore the fact I was wasting my life.  Inhale, exhale, focus on the smoke.

Around me, people were always having nervous breakdowns at the Michie Company.  That, in fact, was one of the blazing topics of conversation among the smart, well-educated and potentially suicidal staff: Did the Michie Company hire fucked-up people or did they become fucked-up because they worked at the Michie Company?

One day — and I swear to God I am not making this up — I had a heart-to-heart talk with myself.  I needed to improve my attitude about the Michie Company.  The place and the people weren’t that bad.  It was me and my crappy attitude that stood between me and a fulfilled life.  I was going to start anew.

A knock at my door.  It was my supervisor, who had an amazing comb-over I could never take my eyes off and who liked me, even though I never did any work.  He introduced me to a new employee, also destined (not doomed!  Destined!) to be an indexer.

Oh!  A new friend, I thought in my positive-thinking mode.  Chirpily, I asked her what she’d done before she came to the Michie Company.

“I just had a nervous breakdown,” she said, as our supervisor beamed in the background at our growing camaraderie.  “I’m manic-depressive.  I had to be institutionalized.”

Again, this is true and I’m not even getting into the co-worker whose eyes bulged out like Don Knotts’, or the guy whose psychotropic drugs caused him to wear winter clothes the year around, or the secretaries who boycotted the Coke machine because of the note I posted about how the machine proceeds were being used to support the Shah of Iran.  No, this was just a little give-and-take on the first day of an employee’s job, just a relatively normal day at the Michie Company (a nearby psychiatric hospital was, in fact, referred to as the West Wing of the Michie Company).

I recovered enough to say I’d heard that lithium was a wonderful drug.  Then the two of them closed my door and I went back to brooding in a not particularly positive frame of mind.

So, you see where I’m coming from.  This is why, to this day, I cannot read an index without hearing the piteous screams of the damned howling in the background.

Deleting an index from the back of a book might not be a conspiracy.  It might, just might, be an act of mercy.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite posts about a local woman who refused to come out of fetal position

13 comments… add one
  • Cindy A Link

    I dropped out of college and went to work at an institution for the mentally retarded. Driving up to the facility on my first day of work, a naked man was being dragged across the road by aides. He was screaming, “LET ME FINISH!” over and over again.  Then a woman with her shirt on backwards was dragged across. She was screaming, “LET HIM FINISH!” 

    I went back to college.

  • I can see the insanity induced by making indexes. I truly can, but when it comes to political books, it seems going commando on the index front (or rear, as it were) will make future research a nightmare of its own.

  • Hmmm.  As I was reading your post I started composing a sedate and rational reply about how you needn’t worry about missing indices because surely the advent of electronic books (which I am told that you favour) would make the job of the indexer otiose — once a book is online, the most basic search engine can find any reference you want. 

    But your story veered in unexpected directions — which is, of course, why I like your blog so much.  By the time I got to the end, I had no heart to discuss Kindle’s search options in the context of Michie’s West Wing.  I was  impressed that the secretaries took heed of your Shah Coke boycott note, while I also wondered whether we wouldn’t have been better off, after all, with that particular CIA darling.  

    Meanwhile I should add that your sanction of e-books is, to me, mere hearsay.  This morning over coffee at a certain well known book retailer now marketing its own e-book reader I asked my mother if she ever fancied such a thing.  No! she said.  But Ruth Pennebaker likes them!

    I guess I missed that post.  But I wonder if it seems odd to you that people who don’t know you talk about your likes and dislikes.  Once upon a time picturing such a thing might have made you a candidate for a nice dose of lithium. 

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Cindy, I think you missed your calling.

    Roxanne, what can I say?  I’ll always see the world through a former indexer’s bloodshot eyes.

    Duchess, don’t think I’ve ever said anything about ebooks.  I’m in favor of anything that promotes more reading, though, in every format.  For my own purposes, I’m still old-fashioned and love the feel of a book in my hands.  But yeah, I’m amazed that you and your mother — with your own incredible lives and backgrounds — are interested in mine.  It’s flattering as hell.

  • Ruth, I’m with you about the feel of a book in hand. I’m a hold-out against E-readers although I have a feeling that I’ll eventually learn to love them for magazines and newspapers… so much wasted paper on that front.

  • Winston Link

    Nobody should be so downtrodden as to aspire to the gloom and despair of an indexer’s life.  That’s sad.  I firmly believe each person should be free to design their own brand of insanity without imposing the weariness of indexing upon any who choose to abdicate sanity.

    That being said, how will future researchers ever meet the challenge of making their own a mark in the world now that indices are being tossed to the winds?  The solution is easy. We must shift our paradigm.  No longer must we view indexing as a lowly job fraught with breakdowns.  Instead, we must see indexing as a punishment fit for white-collar crime.  I say, round up all those DC rogues.  Try them!  Convict them!  Sentence them all to twenty years on work-gangs indexing this literate nation’s non-fiction output!  Equal treatment for all with lithium to the penitent.
    A wise choice, returning to school.
    If you attended, as I did, in the era of  Make Love Not War, then you know on campuses across the land everyone was allowed to finish.

  • Cindy A Link

    That’s funny, Winston.  I did college in the late 70s and early 80s when finishing was still allowed.

    Ruth, I just thought of something.  With e-books, you don’t need an index.  Although I don’t own an e-book, I’m assuming someone could just word search the book for their name. OMG, a job crisis for indexers!

  • Oh gosh. Um. I’m an indexer. And I really like doing it!  I don’t find it boring. I love it. I get to read all sorts of books and then I get to think about how to help the reader find things they might look for. I don’t find it dry or horrible. It takes a certain kind of approach. You have to be organized and logical, but you also have to be able to think creatively.

    I can’t imagine dictating an index – that would be hellacious. I use indexing software which makes it very fun and simple. And I can say I use indexes a lot. In fact, I just wrote a book about the history of cookies and had to do a lot of research into food history. I had a stack of books here and none had a decent index. It made it impossible for me to find what I needed and I ended up having to read entire books, which was a huge time suck, when I just needed to find the one or two pages with the info I needed.

  • I know this isn’t about the index per se but I love how you wrote that it is better to be old and neurotic than young and neurotic. Please please write a whole blog post about that sometime! I am inclined to think that S.P. is just lazy as mud and that’s why there’s no index at the back of the book (okay, now my politics are showing…)

  • Indexes are an additional expense for the publisher and leaving it out can be a significant savings. Standard industry rates are at least $2 per page of the book to do an index, so leaving it out is a savings. I suspect that, more than anything else, is the reason we’re seeing them disappear.

  • I’ve always wondered about the people who toil away to make indexes. I can’t imagine ever having the patience to do it. I suppose, at some point, a computer program will be invented that does it automatically, eh? Then the political memoirs will have indexes again?

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Brette — It’s a matter of personality and the way your mind works, I think.  Indexing felt as if it were personally designed to require everything I didn’t excel at — attention to details, logic, patience.  Plus, you just had to be at the Michie Company to understand the rampant insanity of the place.

  • No, I don’t think indexing will be done by a computer anytime soon. Sure, a computer can search and locate words, but it takes a person to evaluate when the mention of that word is significant. I think it would also be very difficult for a computer to do sub-categories. For example, if a book is discussing robins, but doesn’t mention the word “bird” I think it would be hard for a computer to include robin as a subhead of bird – at the very least you would end up with far too many entries and an index that is useless. You also need to be able to relate things to each other. For example, an index heading for pies might say “see also, Tarts” because they are similar and people tend to group them together in their minds.

    And Ruth, I totally understand what you’re saying about the place you worked and the people there.

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