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The Footnote: A Curious History [Paperback]

Anthony Grafton
3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 5, 1999 0674307607 978-0674307605
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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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A curious history, indeed. Few accoutrements of scholarship have been as denigrated as the lowly footnote, as this lively and fascinating narrative demonstrates. Scorned equally by scholar, student, and publisher, the footnote has lost its traditional place at the foot of the page and is now relegated to the ``endnotes'' following a chapter or at the end of a book. No‰l Coward once remarked that having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love. This longstanding animosity toward the footnote derives from a tradition that perceived of historical writing as a form of literature. Few scholars lavish the necessary attention on the notes and even fewer readers take notice. Only the insecure graduate student or fledgling scholar piles up note after note and by doing so claims a place in the guild of the profession. But a careful reading of footnotes is both revealing and rewarding, according to Grafton, a historian at Princeton University. The footnote, as he correctly and convincingly points out, is critical to the scientific nature of historical writing and therefore reflects both the ideology and technical practices of the craft. The footnote confers ``proof'' that the historian has visited the appropriate archives, dusted off the necessary documents, and consulted and exhausted the secondary literature. It is, in short, a badge of legitimacy. The reader familiar with Grafton's work will recognize the author's extraordinary range and familiarity with German, French, English, and Italian historical writing from the early modern period to the late 20th century. Grafton has, in fact, written a sly work of historiography, a kind of celebration of the gritty details of scholarly exploration, and not merely a chronicle of the despised footnote. Oh, yes; read his footnotes. (Happily, his publisher realized that endnotes would not do here.) -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 5, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674307607
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674307605
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #478,136 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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3.6 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
The history, use and meaning of the footnote is a rather unlikely subject for a book, however, Grafton uses it to focus on the practice of history and the flesh-and-blood jealousies, mistakes and falsehoods which lie behind even the driest of academic pursuits.
One caveat, which struck me at the start, is that surely footnotes would not have evolved solely form historical research, surely they would have surfaced in more useful contemporary documents, perhaps to do with legal or diplomatic professions.
That apart, Grafton takes the evolution of the footnote in historical scholarship as the evolution of `scientific' methodology in historical research. On the surface Grafton states that the `the text persuades, the notes prove'. Originally history was story telling by people who claimed to be present, and/or participants, in great events. As scholarship evolved, the fact that participants might have different motivations, points-of-view and/or explicit biases became increasingly apparent. "Ambassadors' reports - a great source of archival works - report on deliberations to which they did not have direct access and the intentions of monarchs who did not speak frankly". Therefore scholars began to quote their sources by use of footnotes to the main text.
Within this context, Grafton illustrates the distance some scholars will go to, in terms of selective quotation of some sources, the suppression of others and it is this which enlivens a topic which otherwise might have been deathly-dull. He acknowledges, with admiration, that some historians use footnotes to allow that there exist contrary interpretations of the thesis they are pursuing. However his work in the field allows him to allow him to add venom e.g. ` but often they (historians) quietly set the subtle, but deadly cf.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Although the history of the footnote may seem like a dull topic for discussion, it yields many interesting insights on how historians have practiced their trade. What makes Grafton's account so strong is not only his wit and metaphorical humor, which is often lacking from other academic historians' work, but his detailed and thorough treatment of this seemingly forgotten tool of the intellectual historian. Grafton manages to convey, through reverse chronological order, the origins of the footnote, and in the process manages to explain its use and purpose by those such as Gibbon and Ranke. Perhaps most interesting is Grafton's own use of the footnote. Thorough the mastery of four languages he establishes his authority and even manages to denigrate others with the deadly "Cf." It is not surprising that his pages suffer from the "swelling feet of claylike annotation" that Ranke so eagerly wanted to avoid. Grafton's narrative of the footnote is a useful addition to the reading of any academic historian or student of history.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Footnotes Can Be Fun! September 5, 2007
Format:Paperback
Anthony Grafton's short history of this often-irritating contrivance is a delightful defense of the footnotes importance. In an age that has become increasingly lazy in intellectual matters, and the call of some for the removal of all such arcana, Professor Grafton makes us deeply aware of the footnotes place in the study of history, and its continued importance as a major implement in the historian's toolbox. Taking us first to the supposed birth of the footnote with the Enlightenment and the immortal Gibbon, he moves on to Ranke and "Scientific History", then backtracks to the Middle Ages and Renaissance to reveal its true origins. Any lover of the history of the book, or history in general, cannot fail to enjoy it.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Review of Anthony Grafton's The Footnote*: a curious history (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.) 1997
Although the history of the footnote may seem like a dull topic for discussion, it yields many interesting insights on how historians have practiced their trade. What makes Grafton's account so strong is not only his wit and metaphorical humor, which is often lacking from other academic historians' work, but his detailed and thorough treatment of this seemingly forgotten tool of the intellectual historian. Grafton conveys, through reverse chronological order, the origins of the footnote, and in the process manages to explain its use and purpose by those such as Gibbon and Ranke. Perhaps most interesting is Grafton's own use of the footnote. Through the mastery of four languages, he establishes his authority and even manages to denigrate others with the deadly "Cf." It is not surprising that his pages suffer from the "swelling feet of claylike annotation" that Ranke so eagerly wanted to avoid. Grafton's narrative of the footnote is a useful addition to the reading of any academic historian or student of history.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This is an overview of the history of the practice of source citation, especially but not exclusively footnoting, in serious writings on Western history (from the classical, Renaissance/antiquarian, modern, and contemporary periods, and with a particular emphasis on Germany). The author discusses the attitudes toward source materials, the research and historiographcal practices, and the methods of sourcing and proving historical claims, of major historians through the ages, and of their effect on the practices of historical and general scholarship. In addition to being a history of sourcing practices, the book provides detailed and fascinating profiles of influential writers such as Suetonius, Gibbon, Hume, Ranke, and others, and of important movements in the practice of history, including Italian diplomatic histories, the Berlin "seminar" tradition, and the typographical innovations of various writers, whose professional and scholarly conflicts evolved a variety of citation practices suited to their intentions and context. The result is an engaging look at a complex past, evocative of heady and hard-fought battles for truth, status, and influence.

The book focuses exclusively on historical writing; I get the impression that the author, an academic historian, tried to reach a wider audience by pitching it as a history of scholarship in general without broadening the focus of the research, which is a grave error. And at times the author seems to forget that the subject is footnoting specifically, and not historiography generally (to say nothing of scholarship across the board). But if you simply recast the title in your mind to something like "Historiography and Source Materials", it becomes a very effective treatment of its actual subject.
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