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Duly Noted

THE DEVIL'S DETAILS: A History of Footnotes, By Chuck Zerby, Invisible Cities Press: 150 pp., $24

January 20, 2002|WILLIAM H. McNEILL

THE DEVIL'S DETAILS: A History of Footnotes, By Chuck Zerby, Invisible Cities Press:

This quirky little essay takes off with the words: "The need for an adequate book on footnotes is obvious. One of the earliest and most ingenious inventions of humankind, the footnote has been for centuries an indispensable tool of the scholar and a source of endlessly varied delight for the layperson." And, after deploring the recent decay of the footnote because publishers dislike it, Chuck Zerby gets down to his subject by saying that "the main job of the footnote is to interrupt. Simply interrupt." The rest of "The Devil's Details" is, accordingly, a series of disjointed meditations, abundantly interrupted by footnotes and by learned whimsy.

Zerby embarks on an elaborate search for the first footnote and finds it in the Book of Job in the so-called "Bishop's Bible," published in England in 1568: When the publisher ran out of space for marginal notes he printed two of them, (f) and (g), at the bottom of the page. Having hailed the significance of this invention in extravagant terms, Zerby takes refuge in a footnote of his own: "Just as astronomers know that earlier and earlier stars will be found, we expect someday our research will be superseded by the discovery of an earlier footnote.... This author with the cooperation of Invisible Cities Press is offering a modest but appropriate recognition for the discoverer ... who will be given a celebratory dinner at a restaurant of his or her choice for up to one hundred dollars."

Zerby devotes two of his seven chapters to footnotes to poems, a subject I was surprised to learn existed. Abraham Cowley, for example, a minor 17th century English poet, published a heroic poem about King David, whose first book "has the satisfying ratio of sixteen pages of notes to twenty-four pages of verse." But his achievement was, according to Zerby, surpassed by Aphra Benn (died 1689), who made witty footnotes take an active part in shaping her readers' response. Alexander Pope's "The Dunciad" marked the apex of poetic footnoting, but modern practitioners have included T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and a more obscure poet named Christopher Ward, who improved on his predecessors by taking his footnotes and versifying them.

When it comes to scholarly and historical footnoting, Zerby ranks 18th century philosopher Pierre Bayle and historian Edward Gibbon above all others. "Bayle is the Mozart of the footnote" while Gibbon's are "where the scholar pops out of his office to stretch his legs, and, meeting colleagues, gossips ... and feels free to offer opinions based on nothing but his prejudices and whims." Decline began in the next century with historians Leopold von Ranke, who "failed to see the dramatic possibilities of footnotes," and Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay, "whose genius, as this footnote demonstrates, was to combine balanced sentences with unbalanced enthusiasms."

Then, with the 20th century, serious decay set in. Humorists attacked footnotes on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s; publishers banished them to the back of books in the 1930s. With the dawn of the Internet, the threat of virtual footnotes, erasable at the stroke of a finger, suddenly looms. Zerby proposes "a well-funded, broadly representative international committee to explore and establish a policy for the encouragement and preservation of the venerable and endangered footnote" to enable it to "fly once again in virtual reality--proud, virile and redundant." I agree with Zerby that footnotes belong at the bottom of the page, and I wish all readers and publishers agreed with us. But some fully literate persons, including my wife, positively dislike what they find to be the distraction of footnotes, and if they are a majority, I am reconciled to the extra effort needed to follow an author's argument by consulting notes at the back of the book.

On the other hand, I emphatically disagree with Zerby's view that the proper function of footnotes is to offer readers a refreshing interruption from engagement with a (presumably) dull text. Citation of the source of a quote or idea or piece of information is surely the central role for responsible footnoting. And citing one's sources accurately is not a trivial matter. It holds erratic personal memory in check and acknowledges debts, while incidentally also establishing a scholar's claim to participate in a given universe of discourse.

The sour view that citations simply allow "scholarly readers to purloin my citations without having to give me a reference" points to another abuse. But without footnote citations the fabric of scholarly discourse would wither, disagreements would have to be vented haute voix in the text, while friendly nods and generous confessions of indebtedness would have to find more awkward, perhaps less frequent, expression.

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