April 19, 2012
Earlier this week I created a subject index for our Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, which goes to the printer this week. This is probably the tenth time I’ve done this kind of job on a dictionary of one sort or another. Needless to say, it is not my favorite task, and perhaps I should have someone else do it. Only it needs to be done very quickly. I clear the decks for two or three days and work steadily, day and night, until it is done. But before I arrive at this critical juncture, I’ve already done quite a bit of prep work in setting out the topics and the words that feed into them. But why should I be the one to do this?
Well, I am just about the only person who has a fresh and comprehensive grasp of what’s to be found in the 660,000 words—and is committed to getting the job done in the shortest amount of time. Plus, as I said, I’ve got experience! But the most important thing is my familiarity with the content. Over the four-year period of developing this project, and particularly during the final months of reading and cross-referencing articles, I’ve wired a network of connections in my head. Once we have the pagination finalized, I set loose some digital help in coming up with the page numbers. Then I clean it up by bringing some more human intelligence to the mass of data.
In fact, I take some radical measures—like throwing God out of the index. (Do you know how many pages are fetched up with God?) Then, seized by conscience, I reintroduce God with some handpicked pages that might offer maximal reward. And there are other compromises, like the prophetic books themselves. I dump the results of the blind fanaticism of the computer and then select the page ranges where each book is discussed in major articles. There is, after all, a computer-generated Scripture index—and it captures everything in its machine-driven madness.
Due primarily to the time crunch, and some other factors too, this is not a refined index, all tricked out with subcategories and so forth. But I figure whatever I can do within the limited time is going to be a gift to readers who wish to use the index. As any author (or editor) can tell you, indexing is hard, mind-numbing work. In the midst of it I wondered, Why do this? After all, many readers will be purchasing a digital version of this Dictionary and will have the advantage of a digital search of the entire text (and more).
At that point, do you know what motivates me? Most readers don’t know what is in this book! They are limited in their search by what they don’t know they don’t know. Experienced readers learn that an index is not just a means of looking up something you thought of. It is also a way of exploring what the book has to offer. Like the table of contents, it is another aperture into the mind of the author and the content of the book. Particularly if the author created the index. And this is why (for single-authored works in particular) I’m a proponent of author-created indexes. It’s their final opportunity to open up the book to their readers. The author is able to make connections that others are not.
A couple days after I announced to my Facebook friends that I’d completed indexing the Dictionary, an OT scholar friend chimed in to announce that he’d completed the hard work of indexing his latest (little 500-page) commentary. He wondered why he did it. Is he a control freak? Maybe. But if so, in this case it’s a great benefit to readers. He’s pointed them to things they didn’t know they wanted to know.
Like in my case it’s “Mischwesen, 29-30, 33-34.” You don’t know what that is? Well, you need to look it up! You can do that in a couple of months.