The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, JULY 31, 1938


Reading and Writing:

Those Infernal Footnotes

--A Curse on Them, by W. J. Cash

IN W.T. COUCH'S "Book-Making in the South" (a contribution to the "Colophon Annual of Book-Making") which comes to my desk this week, I find one of my own favorite notions confirmed. Mr. Couch has been Director of the University of North Carolina Press for a good many years now, and in the course of that period has had a lot of experience with the making of books by people who feel it necessary to use footnotes. And says he:

"I am convinced that much of the footnote nuisance is a consequence of the laziness of authors, of their unwillingness to work until they find ways to put all essential information in the text, avoiding the giving of such information in notes, and using the notes only for purposes of authentication. When this is done, notes can be put in the back of a book in two-column arrangement, using running heads indicating the page numbers or chapter titles to which the notes below refer. It is an intolerable nuisance to have in the back of a book notes which give information supplementary to that of the text. Such notes ought always to be footnotes when they cannot be embodied in the text..."

I can confirm Mr. Couch in part at least, out of my own experience. When I first sat down a long time go to the writing of a book which may yet end up in Mr. Jack Charteris' library of books that never got written, I began to discover all sorts of problems which I had previously suspected to exist. And one of them resided in the fact that I felt myself bound to try to back up some of my statements to references to facts or the books of other men. Which, I thought, must mean footnotes. So I started cheerfully to pile them up on almost every page.

BUT after a few months of that I hauled up in disgust. Here I was writing a tome that was going to look like nothing so much as a doctor's thesis, calculated to scare off all the cash customers--something I certainly hadn't planned. Wherefore, having gazed at the facts with a long reluctance of a lazy man, I at length heaved all I had done away and started over again. And after a great deal of highly unpleasant sweating and swearing I at length found that what I had begun already to suspect was entirely true--that there is simply almost nothing which really and truly bears on a given thesis which, given a fair amount of skill and a great deal of effort, cannot be woven straight into the text of a book without ever making it clumsy.*

For myself, indeed, I found that I could dispense altogether with notes of any sort, including even reference notes at the back of the book. And I think the same thing would apply to a great number of books which are published with such notes. For hundreds of these books are not really works which require documentation beyond the point of an occasional reference to the title of a book in the text, plus a bibliography in the back Moreover, many of the notes which clutter them up are not reference notes at all, but supplementary observations and divagations. And these last, I believe dogmatically, are always and everywhere, inexcusable. In the majority of cases, a little close study will show that they can be dispensed with altogether. And when they can't be then the primary rule will always hold: with reasonable skill, they can be incorporated into the body of the text, not to its hurt but to its gain.

However, I suspect that it is not always the mere laziness which doesn't want to take the trouble of making a rigid and too narrow pattern flexible enough to obtain all that properly belongs in it--I suspect that it is not always such laziness which explains the plague of note-cluttered books. Many men simply haven't the minimum skill which is necessary to bind a book into a fairly coherent and continuous whole. Their works are merely a series of disconnected notes, which make dreadful reading, but which, because they sometimes contain useful facts, must somehow be borne with. But what is not excusable, what is perhaps even less excusable than even laziness is, as I believe, that a good part of this note-making is simply due to vanity--constitutes a solemn hocus-pocus of learning which is trotted out and paraded for its own sake.

AND I believe that is particularly true in the South. Not, perhaps, because we are a more pretentious people than another--though I suspect we are--but merely because learning is, generally speaking, still a callow cub in Dixie. Yankeedom years ago got so completely overrun with Ph.D.'s that they ceased to be more marvelous than taxi drivers, and began now and then to breed among themselves a fellow actually capable of making noises with his mouth when the brethren waxed too pompous. But in my own late boyhood in the South, an authentic doctor in hood and robe was a spectacle to set the natives in awe--a sort of man of ice with his head in the stratosphere, too high and lofty for mortal clay to do more than gape upon reverently. And something of that attitude, I suspect, still survives, not only among the populace but among our new hordes of young doctors themselves. They simply have to be impressive, you know. Even if it means that nobody can read their books save in pain and writhing.


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