The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes

by Chuck Zerby

(Touchstone, 150 pages, $12)

Chuck Zerby loves footnotes the way little girls love ponies. He considers them "a source of endlessly varied delight"--welcome interruptions where authors can cite sources, indulge obsessions, settle scores and humanize scholarship.

But Zerby also believes the footnote's in danger--assailed by publishers and the Internet. And so he's taken the "pro-footnote op-ed piece" he wrote for The New York Times in 1981 and expanded it into The Devil's Details--a slim, rambling appraisal of bottom-of-the-page citations.

The author, padding his "humanistic history" with dramatic scene-setting, traces the first footnote to Elizabethan England, where a biblical margin note gets knocked to the bottom of the page to make room in the Book of Job. From there, the book winds through Bayle, Gibbon, Pope, Amis and Eggers--at which point Zerby finally gets around to a half-assed, seven-page discussion of how "the art of annotation is stretched into shapelessness" by the Web, the author sounding like a musty dean terrified of his PC.

That Zerby can make a book about footnotes readable--even wry--is miraculous. But in crafting "word pictures," the author turns the footnote into a sort of Dickensian moppet, one who's always being molested or taken in by obsessive authors. (The book is packed with phrases like "the footnote fell into the unkind hands of Alexander Pope and his gang of literate layabouts.") Given that the book is far from comprehensive--it never even mentions David Foster Wallace!--Zerby's anthropomorphism comes off as contrived and a little precious. Alexandra DuPont