An American Editor

September 17, 2018

Book Indexes — Part 4: The Metatopic

Ælfwine Mischler

A few years ago, I was asked to index a book about a medieval ruler and the mosque and city he built. The book was primarily an architectural history, but it included substantial information about the city and about the ruler’s childhood in central Asia and its influence on the mosque’s architecture.

But I was told that the names of both the ruler and the mosque, and the name of the city, were not to appear in the index.

I interpreted this to mean that those names were not to be main entries. There were entries on the other cities in the country discussed, so I put the forbidden city as a subentry under “cities,” and I made entries for “education of X” and “rise to power of X” even though I knew that they ought to be subentries under the name of the not-to-be-named ruler.

Being very much a newbie at the time, I asked for a volunteer to peer review my index. My reviewer rightly asked why I had not put main entries for the ruler and the city. When I told her that that was what the editor and author had requested, she suggested that I make a second version of the index with those items properly indexed and give the editor the choice. I did that, but the editor replied that they had decided on the first option. I later saw that in the published version they had also removed the education and rise-to-power entries, as well as the cities main entry so that the “forbidden city” was nowhere to be found in the index, although the other two cities retained their main entries.

Why? I have never understood why the client did not want those items in the index when they were so obviously part of what the book was about.

Long-time indexers say that they were taught decades ago not to index the main topic of the book — what indexers now call the metatopic. Now, though, whenever we peer-review an index, the metatopic is the first thing we look for.

It has been found that when readers use an index, they usually look first for the metatopic that is apparent from the book title or subtitle. If the book is about aardvarks and readers do not find “aardvarks” in the index, they do not conclude that the index is bad; they conclude the book is bad, with nothing about aardvarks.

Obviously, you cannot put everything as subentries under the metatopic, or you would be indexing the whole book. A joke among indexers is of a graduate student who was asked to index his professor’s book. When it came to the metatopic, he started to add page numbers — 1, 2–3, 4, 5–7 — and then threw up his arms with “It’s on every page!”

But under the metatopic(s) — there can be more than one — an indexer can put subentries that cannot stand alone as main entries, such as a definition or other items that readers are unlikely to look for in the index, and then add See also cross-references to guide the reader to the entries for the main discussion. Every main entry in the book should relate to the metatopic(s) in some way.

Here are some of the subentries I put under the metatopic “Egyptology” and the See also cross-references in the index of a three-volume history of Egyptology. (This was a run-in index, which is reflected in the wording, but I am displaying it here as an indented index.)

Handling the metatopic(s) is not always easy, and indexers have different ways to approach the task. The metatopic(s) may be easy to identify from the title or subtitle, or by reading the introduction and conclusion — which indexers read before beginning the index. On the other hand, in a complex scholarly book, the metatopic may not be readily apparent. An indexer may formulate the metatopic as a sentence or short paragraph before deciding on a concise phrasing suitable for an index entry.

As a reader, do you look for the metatopic when you open an index for the first time? Are you disappointed if you do not find it? Have you noticed a difference in indexing styles between older and newer books?

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

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