(November 20, 1998)
J. Frank Dobie had the knack of saying something in a sentence or two that could colorfully cover the beginning, middle and end of a particular subject.
Browsing through a book on the history of the Texas Folklore Society, I came up on a wonderful Dobie quote concerning indexes, the small columns of type on which any good non-fiction book is supported as solidly as a flower-filled cast-iron washtub on a cedar stump.
Thinking at the time that Dobie's words would do for a future column, I should have made a note of the page number. But I didn't. Later, going back to the book to find the quote, I discovered I didn't remember where it was. I turned to its index.
First, with great hope, my finger traced the "I's" for "index." Nothing about indexes was in the index. Under "Dobie, J. Frank," 99 pages, almost a third of the book, were listed as containing a reference to Dobie.
The final choice was scanning the whole book, trying to remember whether the quote was near the front, in the middle or near the end. Starting in the middle and working toward the back, I found the quote on page 277. Here it is:
"Comparatively few readers consult indexes, I suppose, and nobody who has not made a careful one will look at those rows of alphabetized words and comprehend the tediousness they represent. Of course, there are indexes and indexes. Any lazy simpleton can make an index of proper names. The only good index is topical, and for my index, I value mesquite as highly as Brushy Creek and spurs as much as Spur Ranch."
Though Dobie acknowledged that an index has far from universal appeal to readers, like the legendary 19th Century Ranger Capt. Jack Hays once said of his Colt revolver, "I may not need you, but if I need you, I'll need you awful bad."
A bad index is better than no index at all, which makes a non-fiction book virtually worthless to anyone who does not have time to read it from cover to cover. Librarians rightly disdain index-less titles. But, to reduce Dobie's remark to simile, an index of nothing but names is skim milk compared to cream.
Isaac Disraeli, in his Literary Miscellanies, sang the praises of the index:
"I for my part venerate the inventor of Indexes; and I know not to whom to yield the preference, either to Hippocrates, who was the great anatomiser of the human body, or to that unknown labourer in literature who first laid open the nerves and arteries of a book."
No matter who came up with the idea of offering the directions to a book's contents in detail in the back, anyone who has ever attempted any research -- genealogist, student, professor, writer or rocket scientist -- appreciates a good, topical index.
Jonathan Swift certainly did. The index, he said, is that "by which the whole book is governed and turned, like fishes by the tail."
Writing in A Tale of the Tub, Swift continued on the subject of the index, "For to enter the palace of Learning at the great gate, requires an expense of time and forms; therefore men of much haste and little ceremony are content to get in by the back door."
The best indexes are found in "palaces of learning" published by academic presses or national houses. In the middle are indexes done for the titles of regional publishers, which often depend on the expertise of the person doing the index, assuming the publisher is willing to foot the bill for providing one.
Most of the time, these publishers leave the it to the author to hire someone to prepare an index or to do it themselves. The results are usually mediocre.
The worst indexes are in privately published books. Often, they don't even have an index.
Not that some very good books without indexes haven't been published. Happily, several classics of Texas history, books like J. Marvin Hunter's Traildrivers of Texas and John Wilbarger's Indian Depredations in Texas have been republished and immensely enriched by the addition of comprehensive indexes. More solid works of Texana await a professional indexer.
An index can be too inclusive, of course. St. George Mivart illustrated the point in his Origin of Human Reason with this series of index entries:
And so on, for 10 more entries.
The late Frank Wardlaw, the man who built the University of Texas Press into a major publishing operation, was known to edit indexes as well as text.
On one occasion, he was about to publish a Texana title, and in reviewing the index, found a reference to Christmas. He went to the page indicated and found the only mention of Christmas was that something relatively unimportant had by chance occurred on that particular day. The entry said nothing about Christmas in particular. Wardlaw cut it out, discarding the reference like a dried out tinsel-draped fir in January.
Wardlaw knew, as did his friend Dobie, that there are indexes and indexes.
(November 6, 1998)
With deer season at hand, it's time to clear off the "to be reviewed" shelf to make room for new titles coming later this fall and early next year.
Here's an eclectic mixture of interesting Texana:
Collector Frank E. Chalfant has written an interesting book on Galveston's glory days as a gambling hotspot, "Galveston Island of Chance." Published by Treasures of Nostalgia in Houston, the 179-page book sells for $27.95.
Following an anecdote-filled overview of Galveston's gambling heyday, when big name entertainers like Frank Sinatra played places like the Balinese Room, Chalfant's book features an illustrated, alphabetical listing of one-time Galveston night spots. The illustrations range from old postcard views to color plates of Galveston gambling chip collections.
The book could have used a better edit, but it is a useful contribution to Galveston's colorful and not-always-according-to-Hoyle history.
Don Pedrito's story is told in "Mystic Healers and Medicine Shows," a book edited by Austin writer Gene Fowler. Published by Ancient City Press in Santa Fe, the 202-page softcover sells for $13.95 ($28.95 for the hardback). This well-done book features a dozen characters, from medicine show con men to well-intentioned healers who wanted no money for their services.
The full story of Texas brick making still remains to be told, but Scott Cook has made a good start with "Mexican Brick Culture in the Building of Texas, 1800s-1980s." Published by Texas A&M University Press, the 338-page book sells for $44.95.
Cook's book is an academic treatment of the subject, and not something that would be of interest to a lot of readers, but it is based on considerable research and will be a valuable reference book for borderland and architectural historians as well as archaeologists.
High Lonesome Press (Silver City, N.M.) has reprinted one of Green's classics, "A Thousand Miles of Mustangin'." With a new introduction by San Angelo Western writer Elmer Kelton, the 145-page softcover sells for $12.95.
Green's book is the story of his adventures in the 1930s rounding up wild horses in the Big Bend, in Mexico and in Arizona. First published in 1972, it's still a fine read.
When he came back, I learned he had not been sick at all. But one of his family's hogs had taken an irreversible turn for the worse during the student's time away from class. The hog had made the transition to pork, and my classroom acquaintance had been kept out of school for this momentous seasonal occasion.
If you want to read more about hog-killing, and life on Texas cotton farms in the 1920s, get a copy of "From Can See to Can't: Texas Cotton Farmers on the Southern Plains." Written by Thad Sitton and Dan K. Utley, this 316-page book sells for $16.95 in softcover.