Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Footnotes Are the Stand-up Comedy of Academia, or Keep "Silent Night" in Christmas--and Take It Out of the Rest of the Year

You've no doubt heard of "publish or perish." But "publish and we killed"?

Imagine the obscure scholar, toiling away on the latest tangential iteration of a years-old thesis (student: "It's on there? Wow. Floppy discs really were floppy."), trying to keep the legend of original research safe from anti-intellectuals and Florida governors (oh, same thing), constrained by the straitjacket of formality ("If you're good we'll take you out of the APA style manual and give you a break in the Iron Maiden."), and just busting at the seams with data too good to waste that unfortunately looks headed for the waste basket. What's to be done?

That's why God invented the footnote. "God?" you ask. Yes, God. The second creation account of Genesis 2:4-25 was meant to be a footnote. How do I know? Isn't it obvious? Don't you think God would really prefer a single creation narrative in the main body of the text? All I can say is: editors, beware. Jesus may have washed his disciples' feet, but there's no record of him doing the same for his editors' feetnotes, or lack thereof.

Not that God necessarily intended the footnote to inject wry, subtle humor into an academic publication that might be read by three people outside of the author's immediate family (son: "Yeah, dad, the intro was awesome! Thanks for thanking me for my patience and understanding!"). After all, the Bible has been read by millions, and the humor of the second creation account, despite its lack of a punchline, is in this day of gay marriage much too over-the-top to be considered subtle.

But for anyone blessed with an academic publisher (they tend to cluster around the word "university"), the footnote has become such a gas outlet that the rest of us can only wonder--given the propensity of scholars to smoke pipes--that more campuses haven't exploded with laughter.

There is a wonderful one, encountered today in The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success; written by Geoffrey Lewis; published by Oxford University Press; borrowed through the magic of interlibrary loan from the James Madison University Library by the Bristol Public Library for my son Samuel who is at present in Kutahya, Turkey, outside of the Bristol Public Library's immediate delivery zone; and which I started reading today during my lunch hour.*

The book tells a fascinating story, and it is well-written with flashes of wry humor in the body of the text, so it's not like it needs footnotes, but how irresistible to take the reader aside for a moment of regaling! Lewis, in summarizing the history of modern Turkish journalism, recounts in a parenthesis how the first non-official Turkish newspaper was a weekly founded by an Englishman named William Churchill.

The parenthetical Mr. Churchill then gets additional treatment in a footnote: "As for Churchill, see Kologlu (1986), an entertaining account of how, despite being miyop (short-sighted), he went out pigeon-shooting one Sunday afternoon in May 1836 and wounded a shepherd boy and a sheep. There were diplomatic repercussions."

Here, have a kleenex. I know, I know. The whole thing deserves a movie!

But my all-time favorite footnote is this harrumphing explication of the Christmas song Good King Wenceslas in the Oxford Book of Carols (Oxford, where the footnote's the thing): "This rather confused narrative owes its popularity to the delightful tune, which is that of a Spring carol...Unfortunately Neale in 1853 substituted for the Spring carol this Good King Wenceslas, one of his less happy pieces, which E. Duncan goes so far as to call 'doggerel', and Bullen condemns as 'poor and commonplace to the last degree'. The time has not yet come for a comprehensive book to discard it; but we reprint the tune in its proper setting...not without hope that, with the present wealth of carols for Christmas, Good King Wenceslas may gradually pass into disuse, and the tune be restored to spring-time."

Remember that this season when you sing about snow laying dinted.

*This is a footnote. Originally, it was not meant to be a footnote, but a piece about footnotes cannot not have a footnote. And this is the closest thing to an aside that I have, speaking of footnotes, but it will soon be obvious that it's not really an aside at all, given its thematic connection to the above footnote-which-is-not-a-footnote-at-least-not-here about Good King Wenceslas.

But still. No: Stille. As in Stille Nacht. As in Silent Night, the Mohr-Gruber collaboration we all know so well. So, so well. Sometimes too well. As in today. I went to Starbucks to read this book on Turkish language reform, I encountered the fun footnote related above, I remembered the footnote likewise related above, and then it happened: over the airwaves the Starbucks favored us with Silent Night. "Favored," as in "do me a favor and stop playing that; it's only November 16; I'm trying to forget that Thanksgiving is already next week; and you want me to go all Silent Night? Look, Gruber wrote the melody only hours before a Christmas Eve service. The least we can do is honor his memory by listening to it one time and one time only, thereby returning it to its original state of blessedness."

I fled Starbucks. There was no room in the Americano. I felt bad leaving Jesus all by himself in there, but then I thought, hey, it's okay. He hasn't been born yet. Maybe. Depending on which footnote you read in which edition of the Bible.

Keep Christ in Christmas. Take Silent Night out of the rest of the year.

End of footnote. See what I mean about gas?

1 comment:

  1. Hilarious! Thanks for making my day a silent night (laughing in my thoughts).*

    *at least we haven't started celebrating Christmas in July...yet.