Indexing as artform

by Henry Farrell on October 15, 2003

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_

bq. 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_

bq. 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._

bq. O’Brien An:
never turns his back on an enemy, 32
would never retreat from fields in which ancestors were kings, 33
does, 34

From Julian Barnes’s _Letters from London 1990-1995_

bq. 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

bq. 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.



Nabakov 10.15.03 at 12:52 pm

And J.G Ballard turned the concept of indexes into a complete short story entitled “The Index”, which closes with:

Zileinski, Bronislaw, 742; commissioned to prepare index, 748; warns of suppression threats, 752; disappears, 761


tim 10.15.03 at 1:26 pm

In a well-known solid state physics book, one can find entries in the index like both

cart, before horse
horse, after cart


prose, page of unrelieved

as well as a listing of every page in which there is an exclamation mark, including one page with two (noted with an exclamation mark that is also duly listed).

I imagine she didn’t check any physics texts, though.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 10.15.03 at 1:43 pm

Hugh Kenner’s survey of Irish literature, A Colder Eye, has an index that, aside from providing page references, gives everyone mentioned in the book their Homeric epithet:

O’Casey, Sean, ventriloquist
O’Nolan, Brian, logician

etc., etc.

Then of course there’s The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse, whose index contains entries like

Heaven, system of bookkeeping in, 32; vogue of Mr. Purcell’s music in, 37; unexpected grandeur of its architecture, 48; knowledge of languages useful in, ibid.; blasted, 188; haloes the only wear in, 216

Hinds, salubrious, 14; athletic, 60. See also Swains

Smile, Queen Mary’s, its anticipated effect on national prosperity, 39; social, donned by rustic in leisure moment, 137. See also Corpse


Phersu 10.15.03 at 2:42 pm

This is not indexing but “cross-indexing” : in Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encylopédie, the “Anthropophagy” entry has a link to the”Eucharist” entry.


jim in austin 10.15.03 at 2:58 pm

You might enjoy the encyclopedic index as a novella, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual


Andrew Edwards 10.15.03 at 3:23 pm

Let me just second PNH’s recommendation of the Stuffed Owl index. It’s utterly hilarious, top to bottom, and the very first thing I thought of reading this post.


--kip 10.15.03 at 3:36 pm

I can’t remember where I first saw it excerpted, but I’ve always loved the index entries for _Flaubert, Gustav_ from Geoffrey Wall’s biography of the same:

bq. Æsthetic mysticism; alleged sadism; artistic intransigence; attitude to marriage; castration complex; celebrity and influence; chevalier de la Légion d’honneur; death; debts; dogs; fatness; hallucinations; interest in history; masturbation; modernity; pleasure taken in books; pleasure taken in travelling; realism; recitations; romanticism; sexual abstinence; sexual initiation; sexual passion; syphilis; use of prostitutes; views on book illustrations.

Not a bad map of a life well-lived.


david 10.15.03 at 3:41 pm

The bad indexes can also offer a laugh. Henry Kamen’s biography of Philip II, on whose empire the sun never set, makes the strange argument that Philip, whatever those apologists for universal empire were claiming, was not an imperialist. In the index, you find:

Philip II: not imperialist.

He left out the “damn it.”


Henry Farrell 10.15.03 at 5:15 pm

Bell has a long, loving entry on the index for “The Stuffed Owl.” Ballard’s short story and Perec’s novel make it in there too. It’s really a lovely little anthology.


Jeremy Osner` 10.15.03 at 8:29 pm

One of the incidental characters in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle is an indexer — she is travelling with the narrator to the island republic whose name I have forgotten and engages him in a conversation about indexing. All I remember of it is that she looks down on authors who attempt to index their own work.


Matt Weiner 10.16.03 at 1:53 am

One of my favorite bad indices is in the Oxford edition of Hegel’s phenomenology of spirit. It has an entry for Hamlet, who is indeed mentioned twice in rather mysterious ways, but seems to lack entries for any of Hegel’s important concepts. No–I take that back–if you want to know about “dialectic,” apparently you need only read p. 124.
Pale Fire is a good novel index. And Dave Barry’s books have good ones sometimes (actually, they look a lot like the Hegel).


Dr. Weevil 10.16.03 at 3:04 am

I don’t know whether Dive into Mark was first (your link takes me to an error message) but I switched my blogroll to a Borgesian layout on March 20th (with a further post on the 31st).

The only category name I still use is the last: “Those included in this classification”, but the rest include Puns, Pundits, Ranters, Imperatives and Interrogatives, and so on. It makes for amusing juxtapositions (e.g. Cathy’s World and Dean’s World, A Dog’s Life and Coyote at the Dog Show), but is still a bit confusing even to me, so I may change back to alphabetical order.


Zizka 10.16.03 at 4:23 am

I have always believed that Borges’ peculiar list was derived from the Buddhist list of 100 Dharmas, which was supposed to include all the important factors in reality. A sample of these:

Ipseity, Spatiality, Otherwiseness, Time, Speed, Differentiation of species, Life-force, Concrete Form Analyzed to the Minutest Extent, Taste, Tongue, Tasting-consciousness, Torpor, Restlessness, Envy, Stupidity, Desire, Volition, Focusing, Sensory Contact.


Owen 10.16.03 at 11:08 am

One anecdote not in Bell’s compilation is the Paul Halmos’s circular reference to a fellow mathematician in a classic textbook.


Zizka 10.16.03 at 4:20 pm

Halmos could be pretty funny even in math. His Naive Set Theory ends something like:

“Nothing includes everything. Or, to put it more dramatically, there is no universe”.

This could have been said much more flatly, something like ‘There is no set which includes all sets, so it is an error to speak of “the universe of discourse”‘.

P.S. I’m faking the math, so maybe there’s a better paraphrase.

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