26 June 2006


With respect to our loved ones

There are many who believe that books -- and by this I refer to the traditional object of bound paper and print -- are sacred objects. Anne Fadiman wrote in Ex Libris that books are often marketed as if they were toasters, and yet remembered as if they were friends. Certainly a block of paper, ink, and glue would not hold such an esteemed place in our hearts if there were nothing transcendent about it. The way in which we archive old books on our shelves because of the memories they inspired in us, whether as a favorite book from early childhood or an intellectual realization from our older years, is not unlike the way a museum places found bones under glass. Unlike the skeletal remains of an ancient animal, however, our old books are neither unique nor unused nor truly old.

The loss of such a book -- from spilled juice, from a disrespectful borrower, from a forgetful moment on a bus -- can be devastating. Almost all titles can be repurchased, in some cases with benefits like a new introduction by the author, an improved detail of scholarly footnotes, or a respectful commentary written with the benefit of time. Rarely, though, is it the corporeal book itself that brings us such pleasure. Had the book been empty, like those ubiquitous writing books and diaries sold at the checkout displays of almost every bookstore, its loss would have gone mostly unnoticed, valued at approximately the retail cost printed on its back cover. No, it is the content that brings us pleasure, with its memories of having been explored.

Content is what makes our books cherished items. Porcelain figures, music boxes, ticket stubs, and toy animals have memories but no inherent content, whereas books can be reopened, reread, and rediscovered. Even when the words don't change -- and they rarely do -- the experience of seeing them with changed eyes and minds is different each time.

Listen, friends, for this is the romantic side to indexing.

As readers -- gentle, voracious, impulsive, or any other adjective that best defines the nature of your reading relationships -- we have an obligation to provide access to these memories, past and future. Even if we do not write, we must endow the writings of others with every tool at our disposal. We cannot guarantee that any single book won't get lost in the attic or destroyed by fire, but we can, as indexers, guarantee that every important sentence within is flagged with accuracy and passion. We can, in the end, turn the writings of others into useful thoughts, moments of learning, and renewable tools for discovery and self-discovery.


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