“A Curious History”? More like a winding history

November 4, 2008 at 2:03 pm 2 comments

Nothing would have made me happier than to be able to come to you after reading Footnote: A Curious History and say it was amazing. That it approached levels of humor, interest and impressive research that are laudable in such a specific and unusual text. That I was charmed by the idea of such a topic and that the book’s actual content kept me equally excited and inspired throughout.

However, the truth is actually much duller. “Dull” is, in fact, the word of choice for this “curious” history of the footnote. In the book, Anthony Grafton admirably attempts to create a history of citations in the field of history. Where did the footnote begin? To whom do we owe this great, academic debt? I say he attempts to do this because his text is so utterly winding that one often finds one’s mind wandering away down some more interesting mental path only to be jarred back into the book before you by (in my case) a literal jolt from the subway.

On the outset, Grafton asked some interesting questions about where the footnote came from and perhaps with a stronger editor, this book would have flourished. As it is, the reader often loses sight of Grafton’s interesting questions and, even worse, his argument towards answering them. Almost every chapter wound through interesting historical VIPs and era-specific savage academic debate only to have an argument tacked on the end by Grafton as if to remind us that he is, in fact, building up one. Remember? Unfortunately, the reader does not and there is absolutely no overall sense of a budding argument. Rather, it just seems like your basic nonfiction book filled with little stories, but with nothing coherent to tie them all together. Were the book done correctly, the footnote would very obviously be that something.

Happily, I can say that the research is quite impressive. Grafton clearly went through his paces, not just in terms of English sources, but German, French and Latin ones. (Indeed, Grafton’s sheer linguistic prowess alone makes the book rather impressive.) Also, Grafton rather charmingly makes good and full use of the footnote, filling up half-pages with notes on his sources. On the downside, his footnotes are nothing like those of Gibbon (which he hails as “witty” and generally seems to think quite highly of). Instead, his footnotes are merely notes, comprised of the quoted text in its entirety and with few comments, which I think might have improved the readability of the text greatly.

This book seemed to promise so much to a bibliophile and ended up being just so impossibly dull that I couldn’t even top off the epilogue. (Although Grafton did seem on the verge of perhaps “tying up” his poorly defined argument.) The highlight of the book is undeniably the people you meet in it. While the narrative flags and the argument is almost invisible, the people are really wonderful. Most notably, Leopold van Ranke, best-known as one of the founders of modern citation but also an ardent lover of archives and historian extraordinaire, Gibbon (see above) and Pierre Bayle, a Huguenot and author of what many consider to be the first encyclopedia (complete with extensive notes, of course).

The people and research are undeniably great and it is just a shame that Grafton’s narrative and argument couldn’t rise to the levels of his other parts.

Next up: The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee


Entry filed under: Non-fiction.

Corruption of an adult by a minor Books About Books

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  November 4, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    Good for Grafton for being so thorough! Too bad it was too meandering to be interesting :(

  • 2. Ibid: A Life by Mark Dunn « Literary Transgressions  |  August 25, 2010 at 12:38 am

    […] because the whole rest of the novel was so thoroughly winky.) I highly recommend this book for any fan of the footnote or anyone looking for a shake-up format in their next read. And, of course, any fan of plain good […]


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