Monday, December 14, 2009

Review of Chuck Zerby's The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes

The footnote, like any other significant invention, begins as an idea in someone's swirling gray matter, then seeks a way through human distractions, daydreams, fantasies, arguments and conflicts, and then gets itself transformed into a "thing" [p. 37].

Chuck Zerby's little book, The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes, is a book I keep feeling I should have liked more than I actually did.

In the first place, the book is chock full of good and useful information, and not an inconsiderable amount of history and insight. Of particular interest to someone of my odd ilk, Zerby effectively highlights the very deep entwinement the development of the footnote has with the history of the printed Bible itself.

In fact, Zerby makes the claim, based on the available textual evidence, that the first recorded footnote, properly speaking, was placed by one Richard Jugge, in charge of the Bishop's Bible somewhere around 1568 [pp. 19 - 24]. This is of especial interest because, as Zerby intimates, the footnote has never - not from its very beginnings - been a neutral or innocuous addition to a text. Footnotes are always personal, persuasive, and polemical, much to Zerby's delight.

Perhaps it is this delight that I found offputting. Zerby's research is at many points an excuse for some rather precious phrasing and overly-narrated historical asides. E.g., "These details of Crabbe's life, and the ones that follow, have been lifted (as in shoplifted, perhaps) from a consistently amusing thumbnail sketch of him by Michael Schmidt" [p. 122, n. 9]. Zerby does not simply purloin others' bon mots, however. He feels at liberty to develop his own imaginative back-stories to the literary figures he recounts, not always to the credit of the furtherance of the overall argument.

Zerby's research, it should be noted, relies heavily on another volume, oft-quoted on the bottoms of the pages of Devil's Details. This other volume, Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History, functions as a sort of foil to Zerby's text, in that Zerby relies on it repeatedly for information, all the while disagreeing with Grafton's conclusions and methodological assumptions. He admits as much when he avers, "I have borrowed a great number of [Grafton's] facts and his antidotes [sic]; our interpretations of them differ dramatically" [p. 90 n. 2].

The reason for this complex relationship to Grafton's text eventually becomes clear. The question that drives Zerby, at the end of the day, is this: should a footnote be informative or performative? Grafton holds to the former; Zerby clearly opts for the latter. That is to say, for Zerby, the dramatic possibilities of the footnote eclipse its mere discursive possibilities, and he has choice words (nay, paragraphs - even unto whole chapters) for those who would think otherwise.

Thus Zerby's book itself employs and deploys footnotes not only to the end of logging sources, but for the evocation of effect and drama. There are points when this affectation works rather well (and I am still poststructuralist enough in my interests to enjoy a good performative aside every now and then). The difficulty arises when, enraptured with his own joyous prose, Zerby loses sight of restraint and, eventually, the reader. For such a short book, it was, at points, a very tiring exercise when these flights erupted.

That does not mean this is not a book worth laboring through. While I found Zerby's style more off-putting in the early pages, by the time I got to the last third of the book, I had settled into a truce with it, and found the book both informative and entertaining. If I were to compare the book to a movie, I would say its marketers and director were unsure whether it should be a documentary or a romantic comedy. Trying to be both, it ends up falling short of either.

For that shortcoming, however, there are still jewels here. The Devil's Details manages to be a useful history of the footnote, despite itself.

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