Yet another book I’ll have to read. Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber has a delightful review of what sounds like a delightful book, Hazel K. Bell’s Indexers and Indexes in Fact and Fiction (University of Toronto Press, 2001). Henry says:

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.

I can’t resist quoting one of his examples; there are more, and don’t miss the comment thread!

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.

(Via Mildly Malevolent.)


  1. A book about indexes, improperly done, would be shorter and filled with curse words. A good index can save hours of time.
    I think editing is getting worse, notably at Oxford and Cambridge, and indexes are but one of the victims. [Note to self: number agreement?]

  2. From Guy L. Steele Jr.’s Common LISP, The Language, Second Edition:

    • BOA Constructor, 483
    • crab, catching a, 191,
    • disco dancers, 327,
    • kung pao chi ding, 175,

      and the favorite:

    • kludges, 1–971,
  3. “Browne is God”
    eer is somethings completely else: James Atlas On Translation from the amazing (via the complete review)
    Also I thought you might appreciate this poem by the Wiener poet Ernst Jandl
    Beg pardon.

  4. Thank you—both poem and essay are wonderful! (I note in passing that thirty years ago it was possible to write a long essay about literature that, while thoughtful and complex, remains entirely comprehensible throughout. We live in degenerate days.)

  5. Do you know Paul Violi’s poem “Index”? It takes the form of, well, an index, listing events in the life of a fictional artist (“disavows all his work” comes up several times). It was inspired by Violi’s reading of a book by “an egregiously self-indulgent man.” I couldn’t find it anywhere online, but Violi has a brief statement about the process of writing it that’s available throught the Modern American Poetry site.

  6. No I don’t, but I like the Plath poem you posted today.

Speak Your Mind