Betrayed by Indexes (Opinion)

(Image courtesy of English at Waterloo)

Any English, History, Philosophy, Sociology, Psychology… well, just about any university student knows the benefits of a well-made index at the back of an academic text. They are a blessing in disguise. They are not unlike trails of delicious little marshmallows to our dried out and nearly bleeding eyeballs at the end of a heavy academic tome, leading us through the forests of theory to particular names or terms that we are desperate to find.

That is… if they are properly made. If they are not, all heck breaks loose and it is not a pretty sight. We have all seen students in the midst of an index crisis, with their lifeless eyes, shattered dreams, frowns, wrinkles, and increasing grey hairs on a head that was once of a pure dirty blonde contour. They believed their essays had almost been completed; “just a couple more references, just a couple more sentences…” But should we have to deal with such fingernail-biting-anxiety from, of all things, the indexes of books? Really?

I’ve been asking myself this question frequently, as I’ve been on a roll with my reading of academic texts lately: Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, William Barrett’s Irrational Man, Edward Said’s Orientalism – you name it, I’ve read it, and the sloppiness of indexes in these classic works never ceases to amaze me.

Take Said’s Orientalism, for example. It is a classic work, recognized as such by anyone who has actually digested its contents first hand. It has influenced philosophers, literary scholars, and historians by the dozen. And yet, it has a faulty index! In the edition that I currently own, there are entries in the index by Auerbach’s name which do not appear in the actual text. It’s infuriating!

My experience with such difficulties does not just extend to works of cultural and literary criticism, either. Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is a timeless historical and philosophical investigation about human loneliness, desperation, Anti-Semitism, and the dangers of mass politics. Her book is a classic and, as such, should have a decent index. Alas, when I attempted to find a reference to Marx, I could not find it in the edition. Maybe I’ve just gone blind after these harrowing years of undergraduate research papers and cannot find that particular reference in either the index or in the text itself – I suspect, however, that it is just plain sloppiness on the publisher and/or editor’s part.

For any academically minded person who actually enjoys researching and writing essays, sloppy indexes are completely inexcusable. I’ve actually been developing grey hairs because of them! That wasn’t a joke! While the bit about wrinkles might have been, I may end up developing those, too, if publishers begin to get as sloppy on the copyright page as they are with indexes. You can’t cite without a copyright page!

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