The Devil's Details: A History of the Footnote, by Chuck...

Editor's Choice

February 10, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

The Devil's Details: A History of the Footnote, by Chuck Zerby (Invisible Cities Press, 150 pages, $24).

Perhaps you wholeheartedly agree with Noel Coward's famous dictum that "Having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love." If so, Chuck Zerby may not win you over to his unflinching enthusiasm for the footnote as both irreplaceably valuable and indelibly entertaining. The usage began some time in the mid 1500s, he relates in this charming, witty history and exploration of the formal written aside. In full flower by the 1700s, the device has known excesses: Footnotes comprise one-quarter of the length of Edward Gibbon's classic, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Footnotes have long been under attack from bottom-line-fixated publishers who believe them to be expensive and off-putting. No! insists Zerby, they are the researcher's friend, scholar's disciplinarian and a source of relief and delight to any serious reader.

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