The index: the back door into a book

From Enid Stubin’s memoir of her time in the index trade

Somewhere between copy-editing and serving drinks at corporate Christmas parties lies my stint at Sydney Wolfe Cohen Associates, the pre-eminent indexing service in New York City. I take a certain pride in the excellence of SWC: of the making of books there is much chazzerai, but when Knopf or Cambridge or Simon and Schuster wanted to flog one in particular shuttling the author onto “The Today Show” or Charlie Rose the index was always contracted out to SWC.

Sometimes, during a tricky job, Sydney would take one of us into his lair, set us up at a narrow console table, and spend a long morning and even longer afternoon in debate over an entry. Authors had things to say, sure, but we determined how easily a reader could navigate them in a 600-page biography: Henry Kissinger’s dog Blackie was hand-fed hamburger and string beans by Kissinger’s mother (pet, diet of, 113). We worked under constraints: 1,100 lines was a sizable index; 780 lines meant we’d have to slash away. Balance, too, was a concern: a half-column on the mistress and only four entries for the missus? Maybe not. (Prudence, exercising of, 243)

I never dreamed of becoming an indexer. Such skills belonged to Randy and Grady, outwardly placid but impish fellows of a puckish disposition. David and Fred were more serious, arriving about once a fortnight carrying several 1,000-count cartons of 4 x 6-inch index cards (their original function), or to pick up blank ones. More rarely we steeled ourselves for the arrival of L., the son of someone famous, who was a crack indexer and an amiable fellow, but who’d gotten into some trouble for making obscene phone calls and spent some time on Rikers. (Employees, abilities of, 63; criminal records of, 66) [link]

 

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