I used to index books professionally. Sometimes I run across the book that deserves a good index, but has none, or a terrible one, or a freaking concordance compiled in Word. It’s always annoying. Sometimes I complain online about it. And then I move on.
A lot of people have no idea why a good index is valuable. But if you use them often, you get to appreciate how they can map the web of ideas in a book, distill its essence, pull together related thoughts across chapters so that you can find every one, every time.
One day, as I struggled with a painful revision, I had a vague memory of something Virginia Woolf once wrote about that process. I pulled my yellowing 1980s paperback of A Writer’s Diary off the shelf, turned to the General Index in the back, and found…trash.
Two pages. Mostly proper names, four main headings for novel titles (she only mentions four? No way) and main headings for:
Peace celebrations, 1919
Journey to Holland, Italy, Germany, and France
…which of course everyone would look up under “Journey,” right?
No subheadings at all, and lord does it need them. Fry, Roger alone has 27 undifferentiated locators. 7 is where a decent indexer would start breaking them out.
I swore a few times, opened my indexing software and created a new file. I haven’t read the whole book in a while, I would enjoy it, and while I’m reading, I can build it a better index.
But, I thought, wait. I can’t be the only one who could use a good index for this book. I resist writing for free, but since I doubt I could sell this index, or an essay on writing it, this seems like a good contained blog topic. And I could give the index away when it’s done, nicely formatted. Why not.
So: I will index this in public. I’ll start today, her birthday, and end by her deathday, which is much more time than any publisher was ever able to give me to index a book.
When I’m done, I’ll post it in PDF, formatted so that if you print it out, you can tip it into the back of your copy of Woolf’s book, as I plan to do.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about with all this “locators” and “subheadings” stuff, check out the Glossary page. Let me know if I need to add something.