Tuesday, July 17, 2007


One of the first things I turn to when inspecting a work of nonfiction for possible intimacy is its index.

Friends tease me about this, suggesting that the practice is of a piece with reading the final paragraphs of a novel before I have made a proper beginning.

Tease away, dear ones. An index is not merely a guide to the what of a book; it is the if of a book, as in if salient features appear in the text at all, and possibly whether the features appear but are as buried as the reason and logic in a Republican's campaign promises.

Over the years, curiosity, financial need, and approaching deadlines have motivated me to undertake the compilation of an index. Friendship, too. I've slipped in a few for Barnaby Conrad, who would not think to index any of his writing, and one for Brian Fagan, in the belief that it would help me retain in active memory even more of the facts and theory of a book I had edited.

In a sense, an index is the literary equivalent of a detailed map through a mine field. Although it has not been done, except to whimsical effect by Paul Theroux, I would like to try my hand at indexing a novel.

Why all this seeming prologue about index? Last night's post addressing among other things what can be learned about a person from examining the interior of that individual's refrigerator could easily be applied to the use or failure to use index labels on our blogs. What is there to be learned about the signposts and connective dots an individual leaves as a trail of crumbs to the witch's house?

Might it not be an effective approach for the writer to review a work in terms of what its index would reveal? Would doing so provide a sense or direction--or reveal a lack of one? Are we working to provide access--our own as the creator or someone else's as reader--to the work?

What are our component parts--beyond, that is, the genome? Ideas, concepts, memories.

I live in a part of the world that is constantly reinventing itself. Saturday evening, driving southward from my workshop near Palo Alto, I passed what was probably the spot in Nipomo where Dorthea Lange took the photo of that woman and child that transformed Lange's memory and probably immortalized that woman. Her child would very well be alive, somewhere, possibly married into migrant labor as were her parents, just as possibly a grandmotherly, matriarchal sort from a Central Valley family. There are traces everywhere of architectural, social, political, and spiritual changes. What was once a splendid Greek-Italian grocery whose mouth-watering scents alone could keep you nourished all day is now a goddamned Verizon store. A famous Chinese restaurant with awful food and great drinks is gone; an Italian restaurant with unrelentingly awful Italian food and an unrelentingly spirited ambiance is now a dress shop. A great pool hall and a Spanish-language theater on lower State Street have become targets of some speculator's opportunity. Even one of the great smash-and-burn speculators has moved on, his eyes peeled for newer targets the way a red-tailed hawk watches for lunch.

We are constantly migrating through relationships, careers, thoughts, projects, our senses assailed, beckoned forth, coaxed. An index would be helpful.

When I was just beginning my career in publishing, the head of a major library system reminded me when I sought to gain her order for a project I'd edited, "An index would have made all the difference."

Who is this individual who has come before you since March 1 of this year? Forget the About Me details. Read the index.


Lori Witzel said...

Ah, now I have a concept that fits for the blog-tagging I've seen others do. Never quite "got it" until now -- thanks!

Echoing with a "yes!" reading nonfiction indexes for some clue about which book to take home -- and another, quieter echoing "yes" for having built an index or three (but only for a publisher's catalog.)

I think I need to link to your blog -- too much good stuff here, too frequently, to miss. Hope you don't mind!

lowenkopf said...

I beat you to it. See Lori under link list. Some remarkable paths you follow.