A wonderful little treasure of learning, lightness, and literary history, journalist Zerby’s first outing tracks the footnote through time.
Indefatigably—and effortlessly—charming, the author puts his cards on the table at once, declaring the footnote “one of the earliest and most ingenious inventions of humankind,” adding that it has been for centuries not only “indispensable” for scholars but “a source of endlessly varied delight for the layperson.” Laypeople of all stripes may be pardoned for suspicion here of overstatement, but they’ll find that Zerby far more than proves his point. Offering “a full account of the adventuresome history of the footnote and the many ways it has proved beautiful and desirable,” he introduces us to Richard Jugge of Elizabethan London, the footnote’s apparent inventor, dazzling us with observations, anecdotes, and charms—not least his repeated personifications of the footnote (it may “bring to the door a welcome visitor, perhaps handsome or pretty, sometimes garrulous but often pleasantly sociable”). On we go for a high romp through the Age of Pope (“footnotes are The Dunicad’s obvious target”), an introduction to Aphra Behn, her use of footnotes in poetry, and Pope’s several denigrations of her. For Zerby, the world consists only of those who love the footnote and those who just don’t get it (witness Pope’s effort to “stamp out annotation”). Off he whisks us through the French 18th century via Pierre Bayle (“the Mozart of the footnote”) to England for a look at Edward Gibbon, then to Germany for a slightly mournful visit with Leopold von Ranke (who caused the footnote “to become a scholar”). The droll yet wild ride goes on, coming to a punctiliously graceful yet bumptious end with a hugely risible study of John Updike’s obvious psychological conflict re the footnote.
Put this one with other small masterpieces and classics of tone and style—like, say, Strunk & White. Invaluable to any and all who love the word, wit, and the world.