I am a great lover of footnotes, and I find a fellow footnoteophile in Alexandra Horowitz, author of the NYT Book Review essay Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote? As you see from the title (the broadsheet equivalent of E-BOOKS: THREAT OR MENACE?), publishers love apocalyptic prophecies, but in fact the idea is silly—footnotes, at least on my Kindle, are prominently linked, and if you’re too lazy to click on a link you’re too lazy to read footnotes in any form. But the essay is full of good stuff; here’s a sample:
But I champion another species of footnote: the wandering footnote. These digressive notes, seeing a sentence that some might consider complete, determine to hijack it with a new set of ever more tangential facts. In the wayward note, the bumps and curves of the author’s mind seem to be laid plain on the paper. I came of intellectual age hearing the author’s sotto voce asides in the philosophy essays I loved. I still recall footnotes that begin, enticingly, “Imagine that . . . ”; “Consider . . . ”; or even, in one of J. L. Austin’s famous thought experiments, “You have a donkey. . . . ” I had the feeling of being taken into confidence by a wise fellow during an erudite lecture, and being told something even more clever and lucid.
In fiction, I was spoiled by Nicholson Baker, whose novel “The Mezzanine” is largely footnotes — including a four-pager that starts: “And escalators are safe. . . . ” (A door has popped up unexpectedly and opened! I’m going in!) Smitten with the small type, I sought out the broader history of the footnote, covered to within a millimeter of its life in Anthony Grafton’s study “The Footnote: A Curious History” and Chuck Zerby’s “Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes” (both are heavily footnoted). Grafton led me to such rollicking footnoters as Edward Gibbon, whose judgmental, conversational and explicatory notes in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” lighten a weighty read. Such digressions and asides were so enthusiastically used in the 18th century that one satirist wrote a mock dissertation consisting entirely of footnotes. Pierre Bayle’s best seller “Historical and Critical Dictionary,” first published in the 1690s, charmingly used footnotes to point out the errors in the scholarship of others. I’ll take Grafton and Zerby’s word for it that John Hodgson’s mighty “History of Northumberland,” published a century and a half later, is at least worth flipping through for its footnotes on footnotes on footnotes, including one traversing 165 pages.