4 April 2012

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

I think the best way to capture this book's sense of humour, which underlies not only the book's execution but is conception as well, is through quotation. First, here is a snippet from an article I found elsewhere on the Internet:
At a recent event at the Jeffrey Amherst Book Shop in Amherst, Mass., Zerby charmed his audience by reading from the book standing up, then sitting down whenever he came to a footnote. "We completely sold out at the event, and we've had to reorder and we've sold those out," said manager and book buyer Marie Dunoford. 
Secondly, here is a snippet from the book itself:
A full-scale assault on the dignity of the footnotes was mounted in the United States [by] The New Yorker, whose urbane and unscholarly humorists were apparently hoping at that time [the 1969s] to gain respectability by pretending to be literary. [Zerby, 113-4]
Later, in an asterixed footnote on page 117:
We should note, however, the strange case of one of the New Yorker's most esteemed writer: J. D. Salinger. Franney and Zooey, his interlocking stories, first appeared in the magazine; a few pages into "Zooey" a footnote, of all things, pushes its way into the narrative, in fact sprawling across the bottom of two pages. [...] By no means do I wish to suggest that the embarrassment explains even in part Salinger's subsequent years of seclusion in New Hampshire.
Zerby's style is inspirational. Not content to simply put forward his argument, which I will come to presently, he adorns it with in-depth historical contextualisation, literary criticism ranging from the frivolous to the insightful, and lots of humour. "Why give one example when you could give eight?" may well be his dictum. 

Predictably, he uses plenty of footnotes. 331 of them, in fact.


In The Devil's Details, Zerby puts forward an argument for the continued dramatic use of the footnote. Publishers and scholars, although once heroes of the footnoting world, are presented alongside New Yorker journalists as the villains of the history of annotation, who use their positions of power to deride the footnote when they should in fact be utilising it in abundance. One by one, each of these plain-text freaks is shown to be a hypocrite, stupid, malicious, frivolous, or plain fusty. Meanwhile the analyses of footnotes in prose, poetry and scholarship ranging from the sixteenth-century Bishop's Bible through to Martin Amis's 2000 autobiography show a myriad of ways in which the footnote can add to both the enjoyment and elucidation of a text.

An especially memorable passage is Zerby's dramatisation of the creation of the very first footnote, an account detailed enough to stretch for some 20 pages. I'm sure we are all familiar enough with Henry VIII's 1538 call for Bibles "in the english tonge", but how many of us remember his caveat to exclude "any annotations in the margyn"? [Zerby, 22]

Well Zerby remembers, and he proceeds via detailed analysis of the economics of the printing business, Tudor criminology, and the technicalities of print production to describe how this dictate inspired a man called Richard Jugge to put annotations on page bottoms instead. (The story is much more complex that this. I can only recommend you find a copy of The Devil's Details and read it in full.)

This is not an academic book. Rather, it is a humorous book for academics. Or perhaps an academic book for humorists? The upshot is that there is a minimum of original research, and the argument presented is not always nuanced enough to appear seriously meant.

It's most persuasive logic, which remains tacit throughout, is simply "Here's a load of cool stuff you can do with footnotes. You should totes use footnotes and then you can be cool too."

Personally, I find this devastatingly persuasive.

You should read this book, not for a serious argument about the history and continued use of footnotes, but for the the range of footnote-themed lit crit provided, and for the humorous, annotative, scholarly aesthetic which permeates its core. For anyone interested in writing fiction or poetry (or poetic fiction, or fictional poetry) this is an excellent inspirational scrapbook and reference.

I was so pleased to read a book so exactly and confidently written in scholarly-fart-jokes tone I've been experimenting with recently. One of the reasons I started this blog, although I confess I didn't mention it to anyone at the time, is that I wanted to explore different types of reader-led writing for a specifically literary audience. Well Zerby's book really is, as tedious beginner reviewers so often say, a masterclass in academic-tinged comic non fiction.

As for the continued use of footnotes: is that even in doubt? He says, quite blithely using no footnotes for an entire post.

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