When you think of writing a book and getting published, making an index probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. So, having done just that for the Lohengrin monograph—what was it like for me?
Most of all, it made me think about how the book is structured and what points it aims to get across. I think the Chicago Manual of Style suggested approaching the index as a counterpart to the table of contents—as part of a package that helps readers to find their way through the book in different ways. There’s a lot of wisdom in that: deciding what and what not to index means identifying the key points and terms, and anticipating what readers will find useful—not just blindly indexing everything and anything, or worse, assuming that what I think readers will need is what they actually will want!
One example of that is what is visual and aural perception, or sight and sound … those terms appear in one of the chapter headings, and what is seen and heard is discussed pretty often in the book. Self-evidently indexable, then? Ultimately not, I decided. Perception is not the focus of the book, and it is not targeted at an audience whose main interest lies there. Instead, the discussions of sight and sound feed into the more important points that I make about identity and narrative coherence, so those, I felt, were the headwords that needed to take precedence.
Another case of ‘less is more’ were the names of the assorted medieval German poets that crop up. It was tempting to include all of them in the index (perfectionism? or a desire to cover all the bases? I’m not sure) … but in the end, I didn’t. Authors such as Hartmann von Aue made it in, because their works represent the ‘classical’ medieval German texts with whose legacy Lohengrin engages. But figures such as Heinrich von Veldeke or Gottfried von Straßburg were omitted. Citing a scholar who’s looked at Veldeke’s presentation of colour, or footnoting Gottfried’s handling of linguistic difference, doesn’t make them relevant to the real thrust of the argument. Their usefulness as contextualizations for Lohengrin is limited and hence, in a book about Lohengrin, I left them out of the index.
Harder than such decisions was working out how to structure some of the lengthier entries. As usual, it’s very easy to tell out what you don’t want to do. One of the books I looked at as a potential model had entries for some of the more important keywords that went on and on and on and on as enumerations of numbers … which is just not helpful. But how, then, do you break down large entries into subheadings? Wolfram von Eschenbach was a big problem for me in this regard. He’s mentioned frequently, so it makes sense to help readers navigate all those references in the index by distinguishing between Wolfram as an author (of, say, Parzival) on the one hand and as the narrator figure of Lohengrin on the other. All well and good, were it not for the fact that one of the points is precisely that identity of the two tends to merge in this medieval text … Or suppose readers want to find out how the well-known heroes of Arthurian romance figure in Lohengrin: an index entry for ‘Arthurian knights’ can be included to cover that … but do you then have subheadings for named heroes? Do you also include there more generic references in the text to ‘Arthur’s knights’? ‘Arthur’s followers’? And so on …
I don’t claim to have solved all such questions (and believe me, there were more) perfectly. Many of them I could probably have handled better. For many of them, there won’t be an ideal solution at all. Part of me wishes I had just asked a freelance expert to compile the index for me, as happened with my first book—but my concern is that putting my funding toward that would have meant having to make the whole monograph open access. (Just another example of how short-sighted funding arrangements can be in career terms, but that’s another story.)
Another part of me realizes that I learnt a lot by doing it myself. Not just about how books are made: I also found myself thinking differently about what sort of readership I anticipate and what the bigger picture is in research like this that brings so many different topics together in one place.
There is, finally, another point I’m trying to get across by giving this insight into the birth of a book. We need to acknowledge that not everything can be slotted into the sensationalism that a lot of Humanities advocacy adopts as a surrogate for arguing the case for what we do and why it is interesting.
Much of the work in compiling an index is repetitive, tedious, and solitary. It doesn’t lend itself particularly well to shouting on twitter about being excited, privileged, or feeling fantastic. But from it there arises nonetheless something that should make a real difference to how people navigate and find coherence in learning about this enigmatic medieval text. With a bit of thought, the word ‘satisfaction’ comes to mind.