It is utterly remarkable that in this year of the Common Era 2020 that even in Unicode you can’t write Hebrew in Microsoft Word without gymnastics. The task at work was a fairly simple one: proofread the Hebrew in a typeset manuscript ready for the printer. This means the manuscript is a PDF at this point and to get Hebrew to appear in a comment bubble you need to copy it from Word and paste it in. But wait! Word only has some Hebrew letters in its Symbols menu. Try getting a yod to appear. I looked up a Unicode chart, copied and pasted the Unicode unique identifier and Word gave me a capital P. Not a jot or tittle to be found. So, to get the yod I had to fetch my personal Mac and use the language menu and type the word out. Copy. Paste in an email from my personal account to my work account. Wait. Open work email message. Copy again. Paste again.
Using this method, a task that would take me maybe twenty minutes stretched into hours. There was simply no way to get Microsoft Word to display a full Hebrew alphabet shy of changing the language on the computer. And since I don’t read Modern Hebrew I had a feeling that would lead to disaster. Part of the problem is that programmers thought it would be smart to make Unicode Hebrew automatically appear right to left. This has been the bane of many of us since the earliest word processors tried to replicate the language. We grew used to typing it in backwards. Now you never know which letter is going to disappear if you hit delete—it doesn’t help that it can act differently on a Mac than on your standard business-issue PC. Not only that, but when you paste it the receiving document often automatically reverses word order. Can I get a pen and paper over here?
I sometimes jokingly lament the hold that technology has on us. In some instances the joking takes on a serious tone, I know. I do wonder about having techies drive where we’re going. It’s one thing to make it possible to print Hebrew letters in electronic form, but it is quite another to read them and have a sense of what they’re saying. And those of us challenged by the whole right-left orientation and a cursor blinking on one side of a word but having its effect on the other wonder if it’s worth the effort. There’s a reason ancient people wrote in clay, it seems.
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