Indexing Life

I’m thinking about indexing my life.  It might help to keep things organized, don’t you think?  One of those odd disconnects that a biblical studies editor faces is the discipline’s love of indexes.  I have volumes on the shelf behind me right now that have five or more indexes.  You can look up subject, author, biblical citation, non-biblical citation, and even for some, places mentioned.  The thing is such books were produced before the internet.  If you’ve read a few of my posts you know that I’m no fan of ebooks.  I like a book in my hands, and a book, in my definition, is made of paper.  Still, I do occasionally look things up in an index.  If at all possible, however, I try to find an electronic copy so I can type what I’m looking for in the search box and come up with the exact reference.  In this I’m not alone.

A great deal of my editorial time is spent trying to explain this to other biblical scholars.  In the post-Covid world academic libraries are going to be closed for quite a while.  They’ll likely increase their electronic holdings while cutting back on paper books.  When someone wants to look something up, they’re not going to scroll to the index and scroll back through countless pages to find it.  They’ll use the search function.  That’s what it’s for.  So it goes.  When I index my life, the early part will be all about looking things up manually.  The latter years will be searchable.  To be fair, I would’ve never come to know this if it hadn’t been for working in publishing.

Indexing points to milestones.  Earning a Ph.D. from Edinburgh was one, I suppose.  For a guy who grew up with ambitions to be a janitor, that’s something a little different.  Some things I’m not sure how to index.  The abrupt transition from professor to not-professor, for instance.  What are the keywords you’d put down to search for that?  Or the part about being treated like a lackey by former colleagues?  I guess that’s not really a milestone anyway.  Besides, it’s in the internet half of life, the searchable bit.  The earlier years, many biography readers note, are the most interesting.  They set us on a trajectory that we type up in our curricula vitae.  When I write my fiction the characters are often janitors.  Unless I put my pen-name in the index nobody will ever know.  Of course, I haven’t got to the last chapter yet.

See Index Saw

Too much of my life is taken up with indexes.  If life with technology is a teeter-totter, then my generation stands just above the fulcrum.  There are guys with whom I attended college who maintain no internet presence at all.  I’ve repeatedly searched for college buddies and come up blank.  Those in the decade following mine, if they want to work, have pretty much resigned themselves to tech.  Those in the decade before, not so much.  What does this have to do with indices?  Plenty!  You see, in academic publishing, and its consequent research, you need to look stuff up.  If you read multiple books on the same topic you’re not likely to be able to pinpoint a page number without an index.  You remember you read it here (you think) and so you stick a finger in the back and begin checking out the pages referenced until you (hopefully) find it.  That’s the old school way.

I’ve typed my fingers down to the marrow trying to explain to guys my age and older that the average academic no longer uses a print index.  Just about everything has been digitized.  Although I’m no fan of ebooks (I very seldom read them) looking things up is sure much easier with a searchable PDF.  Type in your search term and voila—an easy list of references appears that can be quickly clicked through and checked.  And yes, my colleagues, that’s what people are doing these days.  I lament the decline in print books.  When I set out to write a book I have a physical object in mind.  It has pages and a cover.  A spine.  I am writing a book, not “content” to be “exploited” in “multiple formats.”  And yet, the index is really no longer necessary.

The typical academic author whose book is at the production stage fusses greatly over the index.  Calmly I explain that indexes are very rarely used.  They must have detailed indices, they insist.  The thing about teeter-totters is that they move.  I have an inner-ear problem.  As a child this prevented me from doing the usual playground things like swinging and seesawing and spinning, to different degrees.  I still can do none of those things well.  My wife and I bought a gliding rocker early in our marriage, that seats two.  We quickly learned that I couldn’t rock with her.  Indexes, you see, are on one side of that long board.  It’s the side on which the heavy weight of time rests.  So ponderous is it that the kids on the other side just can’t get it off the ground.  And I spend my days over the fulcrum trying to get the two sides to play nice together.  Without rocking the thing too much.

Photo credit: Chicago Daily News, via WikiMedia Commons

Where Was I?

Finally!  I have sent my proofs and the index for Holy Horror back to McFarland and I find myself in that state following intensive concentration on one thing.  Well, as much as work will allow such concentration.  Those who write books know how difficult it is to switch gears from fifth back to first while driving at highway speeds.  As soon as the email arrived stating that the proofs were ready, I dropped everything to get them read, outside work hours, of course.  With mind focused on a single goal—get the job done—I’ve managed to forget where I was before being interrupted by my own work.  I recall it had something to do with demons, though.

Perhaps the most taxing part of trying to write while employed full time is keeping track of where you are.  The luxury of spending hours outside of class doing the index, for example, is compressed into the little free time I have between writing for this blog and work—between a blog and a hard place, as it were.  Indexing, which can be quite pricey when a professional does it, is  much easier with a searchable PDF than it ever was going through a printout page-by-page to find obscure references you forgot you ever wrote.  It reminded me of the time I had Owen Chadwick over for dinner at Nashotah House.  I recalled someone asking him about something he’d once written and he looked puzzled for a moment and then replied, “One writes so many things.”  Indeed.  Millions and million of words in electrons, if not on paper, mark the status of a life.  And indexing will prove it to you somehow.

This morning I awoke with the proofs and index safely emailed back to the publisher.  What was I doing before that?  I know that work is looming just a short hour or two ahead, and I need to accomplish part of my life’s work before going to work.  I can’t afford to waste this time.  Nightmares with the Bible is coming along nicely.  A very drafty draft of the book exists.  I have some more research to do, however, and the annotated bibliography—ah, that’s where I left off!—is still a shambles.  Not only that, but I’ve got a stack of reading on the topic next to my chair.  Time to put on a pot of coffee and warm up those typing fingers.  I’ve got real work to do.

Time Taking

Publishing is a slow business.  In a world of instant information, such plodding may appear to be old-fashioned.  Outdated.  Each step of the process takes time and anyone can sit down and type thoughts directly into the internet, so why bother with traditional publishing?  These thoughts come to me as I read through the proofs of Holy Horror, and work on the index.  This is time-consuming, and time is hard to come by.  That, I suppose, is a major reason for doing things this way.  Ironically, people don’t have a problem seeing that handmade items—which tend to take time and be less efficient than machine-made articles—are more valuable.  They represent care and quality, things that a machine can’t assess well.  This is the world beyond math.  It is the human world.

Those of us born before computers took over sometimes have difficulty adjusting.  The world of the instant goes well with inflation—the myth that constant growth in a limited world is possible.  The fact is that value is a human judgment and we value things that take time.  It’s true that most non-fiction books are instantly dated these days.  Often it’s because information flies more quickly than pre-press operations.  It takes a couple years to write a book and a publisher takes a year or two getting it into print.  Back when the process was invented news traveled slowly and, I venture to say as a historian of sorts, didn’t often carry the dramatic shifts we witness today.  A book could take a long time to appear and still be fresh and new when it did.  For the internet generation it may be hard to see that this is an issue of quality.

Most of us are content with the satisfactory.  We’re willing to sacrifice quality for convenience.  We do it all the time.  Then, in the recording industry, vinyl starts to come back.  Corporate bigwigs—for whom fast and cheap is best—express surprise.  Why would anyone buy a record?  The question can only be answered by those who’ve listened to one.  There is a difference, a difference that we’ve mostly been willing to jettison for the convenience of the instant download.  Our lives are being cluttered with disposable-quality material.  Even now I’m writing this daily update for my blog rather than continuing the drudgery of working on an index.  We all have expectations of alacrity, I guess.  The slower world of publishing is more my speed.