The Footnote: A Curious History

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9780674902152: The Footnote: A Curious History

The weapon of pedants, the scourge of undergraduates, the bête noire of the "new" liberated scholar: the lowly footnote, long the refuge of the minor and the marginal, emerges in this book as a singular resource, with a surprising history that says volumes about the evolution of modern scholarship. In Anthony Grafton's engrossing account, footnotes to history give way to footnotes as history, recounting in their subtle way the curious story of the progress of knowledge in written form.

Grafton treats the development of the footnote--the one form of proof normally supplied by historians in support of their assertions--as writers on science have long treated the development of laboratory equipment, statistical arguments, and reports on experiments: as a complex story, rich in human interest, that sheds light on the status of history as art, as science, and as an institution. The book starts in the Berlin of the brilliant nineteenth-century historian Leopold von Ranke, who is often credited with inventing documented history in its modern form. Casting back to antiquity and forward to the twentieth century, Grafton's investigation exposes Ranke's position as a far more ambiguous one and offers us a rich vision of the true origins and gradual triumph of the footnote.

Among the protagonists of this story are Athanasius Kircher, who built numerous documents into his spectacularly speculative treatises on ancient Egypt and China; Pierre Bayle, who made the footnote a powerful tool in philosophical and historical polemics; and Edward Gibbon, who transformed it into a high form of literary artistry. Proceeding with the spirit of an intellectual mystery and peppered with intriguing and revealing remarks by those who "made" this history, The Footnote brings what is so often relegated to afterthought and marginalia to its rightful place in the center of the literary life of the mind.

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Review:

The struggle over what history is and how it should be told affects even such a constant convention as the footnote. As Anthony Grafton tells us in his entertaining study The Footnote, this tool of scholarship is just that: a tool that marks the professional from the amateur. "Like the high whine of the dentist's drill," he says, "the low rumble of the footnote on the historian's page reassures: the tedium it inflicts, like the pain inflicted by the drill, is not random but directed, part of the cost that the benefits of modern science and technology exact." There are some scholars, Grafton avers, who consider the footnote an anachronism meant to distance people from their pasts. Conversely, there are some who wage whole wars against other scholars through the medium of their notes. In any event, Grafton opines, the footnote will prevail, protecting works of scholarship from assault as surely as armor protects a tank.

About the Author:

Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University.

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