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.


2 thoughts on “The Footnote: A Curious History, by Anthony Grafton

  1. Hmm…thanks for reviewing that, now I know which book
    not to get when I want to learn about Footnotes.
    I appluad you, after 50 of a book making no sense, I probably would have dropped it.

  2. Thanks, but I don’t deserve the applause: it was required college reading. Granted, I didn’t technically need to read it, just peruse it for an open class discussion that no one else was prepared for. I also didn’t know that at the time. *sigh* Did I mention I’m not going to that college anymore?

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