Book Review: The Devil’s Details


The Devil’s Details: A History of the Footnote by Chuck Zerby

Originally published 2001; now available as ebook.

Okay, this is the kind of thing us editing and book nerds enjoy. This slim but information-packed book peruses the history of the footnote, from the earliest pamphlets and books through the current internet documents. The author is certainly an enthusiast of his subject—only five of the 150 pages of his book do not have footnotes. Even the title has a footnote on the front cover, as does the blurb on the back!

Zerby covers the rise of the use of footnotes by scholars and authors in the 16th through 18th centuries, enumerating the scientific and philosophical books that often had more page space devoted to the footnotes than to the main text itself. Along the way, he digresses to explain the political and social climate of the times in which these books were written and the obscure histories of those authors. Much of this information will be of interest to readers who are addicted to historical trivia, but will be somewhat tedious to slog through for all others. However, there are bright spots, such as when the author compares King Henry VIII to a talk show host and likens the religious controversies of the 16th century to “the spirit of Beavis and Butthead”!

The book does clearly explain the two types of footnotes: reference notes that provide the source of quotes or information on the page, and explanatory notes that provide additional details or related information about something mentioned in the text. The final chapter, “Toward the Virtual Footnote”, discusses how research and the availability of reference materials has been so dramatically altered by the storage of data on the internet.




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