The Footnote: A Curious History, by Anthony Grafton


The Footnote

DISCLAIMER: I had to read this book for a historiography class, so it wasn’t my idea, for one thing. Also, the point of the assignment was to learn as much as I could from skimming/reading really fast, so portions of the book were skimmed over.

The title of this book caught my eye because, as a history fan, I love a good footnote. Long dissertations on sources and people not directly relevant to the point at hand make for great biographies. By way of explanation: a footnote is when there’s a little number or parenthetic citation in a sentence, and the source is at the bottom of the page. An endnote is the same thing, only all the information is at the back of the book (more cumbersome as a reading aid, but still worth looking at in most good biographies). An explanatory footnote is a footnote that not only lists the source, but also some useful or interesting information (a mini-biography on this servant of Edward III, the full Latin text of the Magna Karta, a recipe, etc).

PLOT: Unfortunately, Grafton isn’t really interested in explaining his promised history of the footnote (I had to ask the professor for that), more in rambling on about how we can’t really know the truth or accuracy of anything, and other elements of post-modernist philosophy. Its really confusing, because he also isn’t big on grammar or specificity. Apparently there is a school of post-modernist thought that argues for obscurity in writing (as a way of emphasizing their theory that all meaning is defined by what other people think of what is written, not what the writer thinks he wrote). I didn’t understand that from the book itself, either, but again asked the professor and my Dad about postmodernism, and figured it out from there.

GOOD: To illustrate his philosophy about history writing, Grafton mentions many important figures in the field of historiography (the study of the history of writing history). So we are introduced to a lot of obscure but influential people like Leopold von Ranke (German historiographer, he argued for history as the study of facts as recovered from written sources, of which the best were eye-witness accounts, and of these the best were in state archives, because the state is the ultimate figure in history). These people are all important because their theories have profoundly influenced thought and scholarly practice in our modern society (Ranke, for example, invented the idea of a college seminar, where students do their own research instead of just listening to the professor talk about doing it, and writing their own research papers, etc). I’d never read a book that actually USED postmodern writing techniques, and to such a blatant extent; so that was enlightening…

BAD: …if really confusing. I wanted to learn more about the drift from marginal notes in Bibles to numbered verses to combining both elements in other areas of scholarship (Shakespeare’s numbered lines for example), and how all that evolved into Chicago style, MLA, etc. Instead, I found a jumbled mess of obscure people and even more obscure explanations of why they were important. The assignment for my class was to skim the book and grasp its basic meaning. I couldn’t make heads or tails of any points he might have been trying to make, or any narrative structure at all, even after reading twice or three times.

OVERALL: Not recommended. If a reader can’t make heads or tails of your argument, the book is pointless: which may be the point, but it isn’t worth 250 pages of monotony to figure that out.

Saint by Ted Dekker


Saint

Dekker has written some of the best Christian novels in the last few years. Strangely though, he seems to be going more esoteric and confusing in his books. For example, check out his Circle trilogy. (Disclaimer: I’m not responsible if you neglect your daily duties or lose sleep after becoming engrossed in these books….) Later, Dekker moved into books exploring various other subjects such as the value of prayer in Blink and a discussion on the three part nature of humans in Three. More recently in Showdown, Dekker attempted to expand on a portion of the Circle trilogy. Showdown was a confusing treatise on love. Saint appears to be the sequel though that wasn’t clear. In fact, it wasn’t until I searched on Ted Dekker at Amazon, that I realized it was the sequel. Strange. Saint did reference Showdown but not in a manner that indicated that it was a true sequel. It would appear that quite a few of his books are now built on the foundation of the Circle trilogy.

Anyway, what I didn’t like about Showdown was that Dekker was obviously trying to have an important discussion with the reader but I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say about love. Without that understanding, the story didn’t make a lot of sense. Saint did a much better job of storytelling until the very end when the story delved deeply into the materials of Showdown. Then things fell apart. In my opinion anyway.

Saint is about a man being trained as a super elite assassin. Part of his training involves mental discipline. This training revolves around the re-creation of his personality and memories. Consequently, he has no idea whether his current memory set is real or fake. Another assassin seeks for a reason to kill Saint.

After his training is complete, Saint receives his last training mission/first real mission: kill the president of the United States.

At this point, Dekker begins to study an intriguing idea: If a Christian’s mind is wiped and reprogrammed to be a killer, is it possible for the Christian nature to reassert itself; can a Christian stop being a Christian if his mind is reprogrammed? Intriguing idea.

Of course the absolute dumbest part of the book is the character’s reconnection with his “Christian nature.” He stands around in the desert yelling “I Believe!” What does he believe? No idea.

This reveals the problem with some of Dekker’s works: he tries to preach, but then neuters the message to be unoffensive. The result for me: confusion. Just be explicit and tell me what you are trying to say. At least that is how it appears to me. If someone knows otherwise, preferably from Dekker, I’d love to hear about it. All I know is that I find some of these books confusing.

Overall, Saint is worth reading. Showdown could be skipped in my opinion, but if you MUST read Showdown, then at least read the Circle trilogy first. For that matter read the Circle trilogy anyway.

Have you read any of Dekker’s books? What are your opinions of them? I personally enjoy have enjoyed his earlier books myself.

Utopia, by Thomas More


Utopia

This is probably the most widely read piece of philosophy to come out of England, and understandably so, because its also a very interesting novel. In the story, More meets a man who just got back from the perfect country (Utopia), and the bulk of the novel revolves around the people and customs of this faraway island. It’s a quick read, though a bit tedious if you’re not a socialist (or communist, both of which could have been copied from parts of this work). Its got lots of sarcastic pot-shots at contemporary Tudor England, and I’m told that the original Latin has even more inside jokes on More’s generation.

There isn’t really a plot, and most people have heard of these ideas already (no locks on the doors, eating together, no private property, can’t leave the city without a license, etc) either in school or in a movie. So, instead of recapping the whole litany of ideas from More’s book, I thought I’d share my college paper on the subject. Our teacher had us create our own perfect world (with the assumption that we’d all be good and create nice worlds where there are no guns or religion or environmental abuse). Naturally, in More’s sarcastic tradition, I thought I’d put my favorite fantasies of how-to-get-rid-of-the-environmentalists in the structure. A disclaimer: I am strongly in favor of stewardship of the environment, but such stewardship should benefit humanity, not the other way around. With that, here is my version of “A Green Utopia:”
• Location: A floating island in the sky, powered by green energy, functioning entirely off the clouds and generating only steam exhaust. Utopia looks something like a series of blimps, topped by a platform covered in giant blue-tinted bubbles. The aeronautic plastic bubbles are actually individual platforms that are interconnected for wind and weather adjustments (a hurricane, for example, would contort the platforms but not destabilize them due to the flexibility of the cable connections). Protected by an invisibility shield, radar, and at last resort non nuclear non-chemical anti aircraft and anti missile bombs (preferably deployed over the enemy’s country, or, if said enemy’s country lacks a desert or tundra or grassy plain where the bombs won’t impact the local ecology as badly, over the Sahara). At first it will be one island, but as the project grows there will be families, children, and new potential citizens who see the value of this way of living and want to become part of the ideal society. Every 20 years, therefore, new islands will be built per the number of successful people who complete the citizenship process.
• Mechanisms for social control: Each floating island can hold only so many people, thus each person must be useful. Therefore, as the children grow up and desire to start families and islands of their own, and as more people wish to come live on the island, new islands must be created. Before starting their own island, the desirous group of people will be dropped in the middle of a tropical African war zone and work together to bring peace and harmony to between the locals and the ecology. This will give each new island citizens who confidence that their passion and hard work will bring success, and unscrupulous lazy persons won’t survive to pollute my Utopia. Once the people entering the society have proven their worth, there is no need for social controls beyond the usual respect people have for people who fulfill their ideals and the lack of respect that comes when others fall short.
• Crime and Punishment: the citizens of Utopia have but two remedial methods for criminals. For lesser crimes or for repentant criminals who broke the rules by accident, temporary banishment is in order. The offending party is returned to the earth’s crust and given a non-political, non-monetary, environmentally friendly goal (such as saving a particular tree from destruction while teaching the locals about living in harmony with the ecology. In this example, when they have convinced the locals to spare the tree, they are fully restored to citizenship). The most severe offenses are punished with banishment.

Anyway, it was really amusing exercise, especially since the professor gave me an A and loved the whole floating island and (especially) initiation ideas. My sister loves it to: we’ve always wanted to see the people calling for protection of white mosquitoes and gun control would react to an African war zone. Assuming they survived long enough to get back here.

OVERALL: More is a very interesting author, and while I didn’t like most of his points, its worth reading. The idea of what the perfect society looks like is intriguing, and now I ought to go write my REAL Utopia (no environmentalists allowed).

Ever by Gail Carson Levine


Ever

Plot: “Ever” is a story much like that in the Bible, in the book of Judges, where a man in battle promises G-d that he will sacrifice the first person that greets him if they win. Well, in the Bible, they win the battle and when the man returns home; his daughter comes out to greet him.

In “Ever”, however, Kezi’s, our heroine, father promises their god, Admat that if he heals his wife, that whoever congratulates him within three days he will sacrifice. All goes well until Kezi’s Aunt comes over for a visit; they had thought themselves safe from her because she was away. They had set up a guard to keep visitors away, but their Aunt, being a pushy woman, discards all warning and enters to congratulate her brother on his wife’s return to health. However, before the words are out of her mouth, Kezi quickly congratulates her father to save her Aunt and faints. She wakes to everyone crying around her, remembering what occurred, she too cries. After several hours, they plead with Admat to allow her one more month to live, before they sacrifice her. Admat’s alter candle flickers, signing to them that they have one month.

Through all this, the god of wind watches all that goes on; and slowly, without realizing it, falls in love with Kezi. After meeting with her in a wedding, and saving her from a horrible admirer, the god of wind tells Kezi that she can escape her death in only one way, by becoming a goddess. Leaving her parents with a note that she is well, Kezi leaves with the god of wind to prove she is a heroine and become a goddess.

Positive: The writing style in this book is quite different from the ones I have read so far. Instead of setting it from one person’s point of view, Levine sets each chapter from either our hero or heroines point of view. It was unique to me and I enjoyed it.

I believe the authoress makes it clear, that the father’s choice in making the promise he did to his god was completely foolish.

Negative: Our hero and heroine do quite a bit of kissing prior to marriage, and live together for one month, alone. They do not sleep together, except once when the authoress writes Kezi “snuggles close” to the god of winds. There are gods and goddesses in the book, so parents might want to caution their children, if they do not know already, that these gods do not exist.

Overall: I did enjoy this book, not as much as her other fairy tale adaptations, such as Fairest (previously reviewed by Sincerelyornot) and Elle Enchanted, but it was fun. It is a small 244 pages, but enjoyable to the end.

Though I will admit I did not find our heroines ‘heroism’ very heroic, I will not spoil it for you unless you doubt you will never read it.

I recommend this book if you feel the need to break from reality, a mental junk food that has a good story line.