On footnotes

Just finished with Anthony Grafton’s nonfiction book The Footnote.

I think someone gave me this as a present a few years ago, but I forget who; sorry about that.

I’m also sorry to report that I am not the right audience for this book. I’m mostly not the right audience for nonfiction books in general, but especially for this one.

I had embarked on reading the book with the wrong expectations. I thought that it would be a history of the idea of using footnotes; to some degree, it is, but it’s specifically about footnotes in works written by historians. As such, it’s very concerned with many matters that don’t interest me much; I would say that it’s more a history of history-as-a-scholarly-discipline than it is a history of footnotes. I imagine that many historians would find this book fascinating, but despite the cover copy that seems to suggest that it’s intended for a general audience, it read to me like a book written specifically for professional historians. (I suspect that it would annoy some historians, though; there are bits of snark here and there that I suspect have a kind of you-kids-get-off-my-lawn flavor, though I don’t know enough about the underlying conflicts among historians to be sure of that.)

The book also has a general structure that I found myself impatient with: it suggests a possible origin for footnotes-as-used-by-historians, then it spends a chapter explaining why that’s not really the origin, then it suggests another possible origin, and so on.

For example, chapter 1 talks about (among other things) the longstanding practice of adding glosses and annotations, especially on religious works; but then it points out that glosses aren’t the same thing as footnotes-written-by-historians, because they’re not written by the author of the work. (I’m oversimplifying here.) Then chapter 2 discusses Leopold von Ranke, who in the early 1800s was the “first famous practitioner” of “scientific history” (which apparently means history based “on primary rather than secondary sources”), and suggests that Ranke might have been the originator of the modern footnote; but over the course of the next 30 pages, Grafton explains that in fact Ranke was not the originator of the modern footnote. The next chapter, another 30 pages, explains what led Ranke to his approach to footnotes. And so on, tracing backwards, proposing possible origins and then explaining why they weren’t really, until nearly 200 pages into the book, when, in the final chapter, Grafton concludes that the modern footnote-as-used-by-historians was created by Pierre Bayle, around 1700, partly in reaction to criticisms by Descartes. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler.)

I suspect that one could excerpt from this book a 3,000-word essay outlining the history of the footnote in much the way I was expecting. (Though that essay would include almost nothing about footnotes that occur in places other than scholarly works about history, because the book barely mentions such footnotes.) But this book isn’t that essay.

Not to say it’s a bad book; again, I suspect that for the right audience, it’s an excellent book. But alas, I’m not that audience.

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