When I’m swamped with work, as I am at the moment, I like to have a book that I can dip into for quick five minute breaks – thousand page behemoths like Quicksilver get put to one side until normal conditions reassert themselves. And at the moment, I’m very much enjoying Hazel K. Bell’s Indexers and Indexes in Fact and Fiction (University of Toronto Press, 2001). A surprising choice for leisure reading? Not really. It’s light (broken up into 74 bite-sized chapters, refreshing, and very, very funny.
As A.S. Byatt says in her introduction to the book, “a good index is a work of art and science, order and chance, delight and usefulness.” There’s something fascinating about lists of quasi-related subjects, if they’re well done. Quasi-random conjunctions can inspire the imagination to follow new courses, as the Surrealists and Oulipo crowd always insisted. Byatt mentions a good example of this: Borges’ list of beasts drawn from “a certain Chinese encyclopedia.” We used some of Borges’ categories in setting up our own category list for Crooked Timber – those who have wondered why some posts are classified as “look like flies” now know the reason (apparently, Dive into Mark had the same idea). This list apparently blew Foucault’s mind, and inspired him to write Les mots et les choses, which may be a good or bad thing, depending on what you think of French poststructuralism.
Bell doesn’t provide any indexes to equal that of Borges, but she does have some good ones. An index, if it’s done properly, is an art form in itself. Index entries may range from terse one-liners, which tell a story in a few words, to great wobbling extravagances of quasi-related incongruities and oddities, piled untidily on one another like Pelion upon Ossa. And Bell’s book has them all. Brief nuggets of information (from the index to Sir Thomas Browne’s work comes the irrestistible ‘cabbage, Cato’s chief diet’). Indexes composed by the author to savage his enemies. Indexes composed by enemies of the author in order to denigrate and belittle the author and his work. Index as forms of intellectual slash and burn. As forms of art. Index items which are miniature novels in themselves. Und so weiter. Bell’s book is highly recommended.
From the index of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy
Cabbage brings heaviness to the soul, 192. [perhaps explaining Cato’s dyspepsia].
Fish discommended, 192; defended, 398.
Kisses, honest and otherwise, 701 et seq.
Non-natural things, the six, defined, 189.
Pork, not for quasy stomachs, 190,
Roman courtesans, their elegance of speech, 699.
From the index of de Quincey’s Collected Writings
Coffee, atrocious in England.
Cookery, English, the rudest of barbarous devices.
Dogs in Greece, a nuisance.
Leibnitz, died partly from fear of not being murdered.
Muffins, eating, a cause of suicide.
Music, English obtuseness to good.
Rhinoceros, first sale of a
Servants, England the paradise of household
Spitting, the art of
Toothache, that terrific curse.
From Desmond Ryan’s The Fenian Chief: A Biography of James Stephens.
never turns his back on an enemy, 32
would never retreat from fields in which ancestors were kings, 33
From Julian Barnes’s Letters from London 1990-1995
Lloyd Webber, Andrew: threat to leave country if Labour elected fails to make enough people vote Labour.
and from Barnes’ index entry on Lady Thatcher
rumours of lunacy; receives electric shocks in bath; ‘bawls like a fish-wife’; accused of war crimes; new version of Saint Augustine; how not to make the poor richer; discovers it’s a funny old world; compared to Hamlet’s father; compared to Catherine the Great; Bursts into flame; omnipresence; effect on carol singers; unimpressed by the French Revolution.