Monday, October 17, 2011

Death of the Footnote

A recent NYTimes piece by Alexandra Horowitz on the lowly, often-derided footnote is really an essay about change: from the printed book, where scholars can wage a war--or at least a battle or two with opponents--at the bottom of the page, to the e-book, set up without conventional pages. If e-books are not killing ordinary books, they are apparently killing the page as we know it, i.e., a unit of text with a top and a bottom.

I lament the death of the page, and of the book (which I believe will survive) but not the footnote.

As a teacher, I generally required endnotes rather than footnotes from my students in their research papers and theses. As a student, I hated doing footnotes because I had to leave adequate space at the bottom of the page while typing; but such, I learned, was the life of a beginning scholar, who establishes his or her reputation by citing authorities. I came to enjoy reading many a long footnote for the role it played in academic skirmishes but never tried to emulate this use of the note.

The reality is that both footnotes and endnotes tend to go unread by most readers, even in academic work, and they are routinely dismissed as a nuisance, an interruption, by general readers. It's possible that the scholarly footnote might be seen as a sign of insecurity on the part of the young scholar, eager to establish his or her authority. And it can be tempting to put controversial ideas in the footnote rather than in the text of a chapter or article, where they would have to be fully developed. I have seen a few footnotes that were misleading in this way, like throw-away lines that call for more explanation. So footnotes will not be missed.

But Anthony Grafton in his History of the Footnote insists that the footnote is essential; it offers the needed proof that the scholar has consulted the appropriate archives; thus the footnote, much preferable to the easily overlooked endnote, is a badge of legitimacy. There is nothing anachronistic about the footnote, says he, concerned as he is with professional historians like himself.

"Like the high whine of the dentist's drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historian's page reassures: the tedium it inflicts, like the pain inflicted by the drill, is not random but directed, part of the cost that the benefits of modern science and technology exact."

I quote this sentence in part because I admire its elegance; Grafton is a fine stylist. And because it shows, as does the whole discussion, that any topic, however lowly or dull, can be turned into something interesting, even witty, in the right hands. Such is good writing.

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