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My Crush on Footnotes

26-08-2012
I wanted to write about this for a long time, but couldn’t just get to doing it. Mary Beard’s July 26, 2012 blog in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) jogged my memory. I thought I should get it off my chest without any further delay.

It was in 1978 after I entered the portals of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) that I first ever noticed these lovely things called ‘footnotes’. I might have seen them before, but never really registered them in my mind. It is unlikely that I have not come across them before 1978. Whether I had understood or not, I read a lot of books since my childhood. And even when I have not read them, I loved to be with them around me.

It took very little time for me to get fascinated about footnotes. I fancied them instantly. I felt a kind of thrill using them. Somehow, the more I could use them the more I thought my papers were scholarly. They looked scholarly, at any rate. Grading by my professors also encouraged me. Footnotes impressed them.

I had a crush on Footnotes.

When I found scholars use them extensively, I was overawed. I couldn’t but mistake their ability to use footnotes for their scholarship.

If a footnote gave a reference to somebody else’s work, it was quite normal, just an expected function of this academic tool. If it gave a reference to a work that held a different or a contrary opinion, that had a bit of novelty to it. If it carried an explanation by the author, it was quite thrilling. That was a real chance to show off.

I often wondered why an author chose to write a long note not in the body of the paper, but in a footnote. Then came the most fascinating of all: There were some scholars who wrote long – really long – footnotes. They were mostly scholars of International Law. High priests of the discipline sitting in Yale, Princeton, and in The Hague, often did this.

It was thrilling to see a page which had just one or two lines of main body, and the rest of the page taken up by a long footnote. A couple of lines and then a line that separates the main body of the text from a long footnote! Fascinating. It was out of the world.

It didn’t stop there. There were scholars who sometimes wrote footnotes so long that they ran into a couple of pages! A footnote would start on a page and then go on to the next page that had again only a line or two as the main text.

I badly wanted to do that myself. In fact, we were a bunch of us who wanted to do that. But we didn’t have so much stuff with us to write in a footnote. Whatever we had in our minds or in our notes was insufficient even to fill the main body of our papers. But we badly wanted to do that kind of a feat.

We used footnotes in scholarly works as a source to crank up our bibliography. We appended a long list of books to impress that we had consulted all those works to write our tiny term papers. We actually didn’t read any of them, though.

Each one of us tried to outdo others in the class to have more and more footnotes.

We were not only fascinated by writings that had footnotes. We looked at every kind of writing that did not have them with disdain. Newspaper articles were least respectable in our scheme of things those days. Simply because they did not have footnotes.

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