On the Index

Recently I had a chance to review the professional index that Walker/Bloomsbury commissioned for my new book about Copernicus. The index arrived by e-mail on a Thursday afternoon, with instructions to look it over and return it with any suggestions for additions or subtractions by Monday morning.

Friends and family members were surprised to hear how I was spending the weekend.

“I thought it was done electronically,” one said. I wonder how many people think that? I mean, think about it. What would an electronically produced index look like, assuming a computer program could create such a thing? I’m picturing the name Copernicus followed by a long string of page numbers. And now I’m picturing a reader with a specific question in mind being thrown off the scent in frustration.

“I’ve always wondered who’s responsible for it,” my neighbor mused, “and how it’s put together, since there are so many different ways to look up things.”


Whenever I evaluate a work of nonfiction I look at the index to see how detailed it is. Indices speak to me.

Imagine my delight, then, at opening the document to find the entry for “Copernicus, Nicolaus” divided into more than thirty sub-categories, such as “birthplace of” and “death of,” plus a note to “See also On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.” There was even a cross-reference for: “Koppernigk, Niklas. See Copernicus, Nicolaus.”

Indexing struck some of my family members as “the most tedious job” they could conceive. I countered that an indexer doesn’t merely compile a list of topics, but rises to an understanding of a book that must rival the author’s own. I didn’t think I could categorize the material nearly as well. Given a template, however, I tampered with it.

The draft index ran to 19 pages, double-spaced. My additions stretched it to 21, with at least one major judgment call for each letter of the alphabet. Starting with “A” for “astronomy,” I feared the indexer and I had already come to a philosophical divide. How could she offer only a handful of page references for this subject, when it pervaded the entire text? I was tempted to delete “astronomy,” until I noticed she’d allotted separate listings to “astrology,” “astronomical instruments,” “astronomical tables,” as well as a “Copernicus” sub-head labeled “observation of the sky by,” and I softened.

The first index entry under “I” naturally went to the Index—the Index of Prohibited Books, that is, where On the Revolutions held a place for two hundred years. That Index did not exist when Copernicus wrote his masterpiece, which he dedicated to the reigning religious authority of his time, “Paul III (pope), 179, 180, 181, 192, 216-17.”