Don’t ditch the index(es)

Is it just me, or are printed books increasingly being published without any index(es)?

Over the last few months, my repeated complaint about books which I have reviewed here is their lack of any index. I am not referring here to works of fiction – although epics such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings certainly benefit from indexes – but some quite scholarly works which will serve as references for some years to come.

Indexes may get tucked away at the back of a book, but they are primary tools for accessing the contents locked between its covers. Even when you are reading a book sequentially, from cover to cover, an index is valuable for looking up issues which you may have queries over. This is particularly true of books on art, where you might want to find the figure showing a particular painting, check information about a person or location, or follow up a topic discussed elsewhere in the book.

This is why, for books on art, I prefer those which have separate indexes covering works of art, people, and general entries.

Although some authors create their own indexes, by and large they are the work of contractors, knowledgeable about the subject area, and adept at working in the page layout software used by the publisher to take the work to print.

Doing away with indexes saves the relatively small cost of that contractor, and the more substantial cost (to every copy) of those extra pages.

However, against that saving in cost, the book’s value, particularly to scholars and students, is markedly stunted. Unable to discover quickly where a particular image is, the reader is reduced to thumbing through all the pages to find it. As I am doing that increasingly frequently now, I vouch for how tedious it is. When it comes to names and topics, we are reduced to guesswork, based on the table of contents.

Electronic versions of books are not quite such a problem: you can search their text in whatever book reader they require. That is far from being as efficient as using a good index, but at least there is that workaround. For printed copies, there is simply no substitute for a good index.

If publishers want us to buy their books in print form, then indexes are one of the features which they need to retain if not enhance. It is really sad and frustrating to be reduced to searching excellent books, the result of thousands of hours labour by their authors, by thumbing through them as you might a magazine in the dentist’s waiting room. Particularly when you have paid more than £30 for the privilege.