Opinion

alex beam

Footnote in mouth

david goldin for the boston globe

Is the oft-predicted “Death of the Footnote” upon us?I In two new best-selling books, authors Rick Perlstein and William Deresiewicz have chosen to dump their voluminous citations on the Internet, eliminating the traditional “end matter” from printed versions of their books.

Cue the predictable, fuddy-duddy outrage. “As someone who has taught American political history at Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston universities, I am appalled that Mr. Perlstein has not put his footnotes where they belong,” Michael McShaneII fumed on the Open Letters website.

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In the augustIII New Yorker magazine, Nathan Heller opines that “publishers’ tendency to take back matter out of books is cheap and lazy, and it only makes for trouble.” In the end, Heller writes, “we lose more than we gain.”

When I refer to “footnotes,” I mean the author’s citations and source notes, not the clever little apercus that writers such as David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker, and Vladimir NabokovIV gently wove into the bottoms of their elegant, verbal tapestries.

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Edward Gibbon, English literature’s all-time Footnote King, integrated amusing comments into his otherwise routine citations. Citing St. Augustine in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” Gibbon drily observes that Augustine’s “learning is too often borrowed and . . . [his] arguments are too often his own.”

I hate footnotes. “Having to read footnotes,” Noel Coward once said, “resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love.”V I understand that if you’re gradgrindingVI your way up the greased pole of academia, footnotes are the necessary, soul-draining, dead weights of drudgery that threaten to drag you down to the Slough of Adjunctdom whence you came.

But for the reading public, they’re not needed. Thucydides, Howard Zinn, and Thorstein VeblenVII — there are three names you rarely see lumped together — all eschewed footnotes. The greatest work of popular history ever written, Cecil Woodham-Smith’sVIII “The Reason Why,” the authoritative account of the Charge of the Light Brigade, has no footnotes. The book gallops forward, unimpeded, to its terrible, moving conclusion.

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I’ve come by my anti-footnote prejudice honestly. I wrote two, unfootnoted works of nonfiction that have been widely hailed as paragons of accuracy.IX I did include occasional asides at the bottom of the page,X but instead of specifying my citations, I dumped a nebulous “Note on Sources” at the end of each chapter.XI No one seemed to mind.

More recently, I published a work of popular history, replete with footnotes conforming to the ridiculous Chicago Manual of Style. There were 276 of them, and they were an enormous pain in the neckXII to check and double-check. And still one or two may have gotten away from me, emboldening a small band of detractorsXIII to attack me in blessedly off-the-grid historical reviews.

I do plan to write another book, and between now and then, I will find a remote corner of the Internet to stash my impressive array of citations.

Footnotes and me? It’s over.XIV 

IApparently not

IIThis is not the Michael McShane who works at the American Enterprise Institute: “I wish I had that academic pedigree!” he helpfully disambiguates.

IIIBut not August

IVNabokov’s novel “Pale Fire” is a 200-plus page series of footnotes to a mock-heroic poem. Deep-dish Nabokovians realize that “Fire” is itself a subtle parody of the novelist’s exhaustive, four-volume commentary on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “Eugene Onegin.”

VI stole this quote from another journalist

VII know it’s technically not a verb; but it is now.

VIIFor insights into Veblen’s operatic sex life, please see my article “The Naughty Professor”, Stanford Magazine, September, 1997

VIIIAppearances notwithstanding, Woodham-Smith was a woman. “From a grand Irish family, she was quite snobbish,” Alan Bennett once recalled. “Talking of someone she said: ‘Then he married a Mitford … but that’s a stage everybody goes through.’”

IXNot really.

XOne on Harvard Medical School professor Louis Agassiz Shaw, inventor of the iron lung, who was arrested in 1927 for operating a still in his “palatial home on 6 Marlboro Street,” according to the Globe.

XIStephen Greenblatt does something similar in his widely praised Shakespeare book, “Will in The World,” so I’m in excellent company.

XIIWe don’t use words like “ass” in the newspaper, unless referring to a donkey.

XIIITwo detractors. More of a duo than a band.

XIVUnartful double-entendre.

Globe contributor Alex Beam is author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”
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