Ye olde curiosity shoppe
The lowly footnote kicks up its heels
(Editor's note: Each month we see lots of books. Some of the curious arrivals are featured here.)
Let's face it: the footnote has fallen on hard times. Most writers find footnotes difficult; publishers find them costly; and readers (at least most of us) find them distracting. As Noel Coward is reported to have said, "Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love."1
It's surprising, and somewhat refreshing, to discover that despite all their flaws, footnotes actually have admirers. Ready to serve as president of the Footnote Fan Club is Chuck Zerby, who has written not just a defense of the footnote, but a paean to its beauty and utility in The Devil's Details: A History of the Footnote. Bubbling with enthusiasm for this typographical nuisance, Zerby calls the footnote "an indispensable tool of the scholar and a source of endlessly varied delight for the layperson." Rather than seeing footnotes as a distraction, the author suggests we view them as a boon to readers with short attention spans, as "a chance to rest," particularly if we're reading about Kant's categorical imperative or some other mind-boggling subject.
The author, a poet, newspaper columnist and former dean of campus at Goddard College, offers an exhaustive history of his subject, which includes such luminaries as Edward Gibbon, who devoted one-quarter of the space in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to footnotes. Zerby gladly follows his example, squeezing footnotes onto virtually every page of his book, including the cover. These annotations are, in fact, the best part of the book hilarious, illuminating, opinionated and wide-ranging. Zerby's own footnotes appear to prove his point that "A text is something only a scholar can love; a footnote, however, is like a blind date, threatening and exciting, dreary occasionally but often entertaining. And a footnote does not require or expect a long-term commitment."
1. Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 70.