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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Setting the Table

My first job in children’s books was to rethink, relaunch, and re-edit the Land and People books — the Portraits of the Nations series — for what was then still the Lippincott imprint at Harper & Row. My boss was Robert Warren — an enigmatic, sometimes vexing, guy who was a terrific editor (I was pleased to see him listed in the acknowledgments for When You Reach Me and suspect that there is an interesting story there, as he is longer in publishing and the novel was published by Random House, not Harper). I suppose I got the job because I told Robert that I didn’t think we could simply update the existing book, we had to re-think what books about countries should be in the late 1980s, early 1990s. And in asking that question, we looked at the Table of Contents.

The ToC is a map of the book to come. It is, in a sense, the reverse of the index. The index takes you to precise places — where that exactly term, name, or idea is located in the book. By contrast, the ToC lays out for you the plan of the books, the organizational scheme, within which you will find all of those details. As it happened, the big adult history books of the time were Ferdnand Braudel’s multivolume study of Civilization and Capitalism. I believe it was Robert who noticed the excellent use Braudel made of his TOC: he did not merely list parts, sections, and chapters. Instead, within each chapter he included the sequence of subheads. We decided to follow that plan, adding in as well any features — such as maps, sidebars, or timelines. That way the ToC became the reverse-index, the pre-index — before you know what is in the book, you get a full route map showing in fine detail where everything is, what it is called, and the flow of ideas. In reverse, in creating the book, the extensive ToC could alert the writer (and the editor) to chapter that were too thick with extras, too broken up, to dense with subthemes.

Ever since then I have favored this more detailed brand of ToC. I cannot tell you how many kids, librarians, or teachers use it, but there is something satisfying in knowing you have shown your wares — you have done your best to, as they say in the black church, “make it plain.” You have spread out your offerings for all to see, pick through, and savor. Listing the sequence of heads helped me as a writer, too. I began to feel the rhythm of when the reader needed a break, how much real estate to give each beat, each thought, within a chapter.

But the ToC we borrowed from Braudel is surely only one solution. Of course there is the acme standard ToC — a list of chapter. But are there, or could there be others? Of course. Have any of you seen ToCs that worked especially well? Why? Or those that were particularly frustrating? Again why? On Friday I’ll tell the story of one ToC that was fun, perplexing — and possibly worked — though it turned the conventions of the ToC upside down — or, rather, inside out.