The plight of the book business is my delight! This is because of an expedient to which publishers are increasingly driven: instead of printing footnotes, they post them on websites, free of charge. The author of a recent study of the Nixon-Reagan nexus, for example, has posted the notes on his own site. He claims to be acting in a spirit of “intellectual democracy.” I will not bother to footnote, let alone dispute, this claim, but he could more plausibly have admitted that he was just trying to save the publisher money, or the ecosystem, a tree or two.
By now, the reader may have guessed that I read only footnotes. Having access to them online makes it unnecessary for me either to buy books or to spend weary hours in bookstores, where there are never enough seats. “Why notes?” you ask. Because books are a waste of time —and money. I can usually guess an author’s main point from the first few sentences of Chapter One.
Footnotes are much more fun. They serve not only the dull purpose of validating (or not) the author’s argument. Some writers are so uptight that they are embarrassed by the obiter dicta, the juicy rumors and other tidbits, they unearth. But once they go to the trouble of mining all this gold, unwilling to just abandon it, they stash it in the notes. Best of all, footnotes allow the reader to play a delightful game: guess the text from the notes. “But how,” you ask, “can someone who hasn’t even read a book know whether he has ‘won’ “? From the reviews, of course!
To prove my point, I offer a pair of sample footnotes, but not from the Nixon-Reagan book. Not that the N-R notes are bad: of the tomes I have recently perused, they are in the top quartile, or even quintile. But my reader deserves the very best.
These notes come from the website of a sports hagiography. Knowledgeable fans will recognize the famous subject, a baseball pitcher, from his soubriquet, “Spaghetti Legs.” If you don’t know who that is, the notes should tell you. They should also give you a good sense of the book. The player’s nickname, by the way, which is explained in one of the first notes (unquoted here), refers to his skinny, crooked legs, and has nothing to do with recalcitrant children who go limp, women who tremble with sexual pleasure, or soccer goalkeepers who feign fear in order to distract penalty-kick takers, all of which usages came much later.
From the Notes:
ch. 4, p. 66, n. 23: shot out in front and blown out behind. This famous mot was applied to S.L. during a memorable at-bat in the 1926 World Series. After going 0 for 3 in Game 1 of the Series, in the third inning of Game 4, as the first pitch, an inside fastball, came whizzing toward his head, the weak-hitting S.L. is said to have simultaneously belched and farted so loud that the twin blasts caused a fan in the first row to drop both his hot dog and his soda. To this day, the identity of the teammate who shouted the mot from the dugout is still disputed. Spaghetti Legs was walked on the next three pitches, none of which came within a foot of the plate. Presumably, the pitcher, too, had heard the twin blasts, and possibly even the mot.
ch. 27, pp.464-471, n. 60: “Now that was one hell of a spitter!”: That S.L. was guilty of this offense, which drew a two-game suspension in 1933, is undeniable. “Talk about loading up!” a former teammate quipped. “S.L.’s glove was the swamp of death.” “Hell,” another player recalled, “the guy used to build mud pies around the mound! He was like a kid at the beach. Once, the ump caught him with a small piece of emery board in his glove, and S.L. claimed he was using it to file his nails. He threw the knuckler, you see. “So how come the emery board is soaked with a resinous substance?” the ump asked. “I sweat a lot,” S.L. replied.
And now for a few tidbits from the reviews, which will tell the reader whether (s)he has sussed out “S.L.’s” identity and caught the general tenor of the book. These bits will also provide a taste of the hundreds of unquoted footnotes.
From the Reviews:
“…As one would expect in a biography of the notorious Herman ‘Spaghetti Legs’ McQuince, Mr. Davinsky’s book leaves no stone unturned… His explanation of the pitcher’s role in the hitherto murky gambling scandal of 1931 should prove definitive…”
“…Aficionados of the National Pastime will relish Steve Davinsky’s meticulous, pitch-by-pitch account of every inning, every game, every season, in the mediocre, but storied, eighteen-year career of ‘Spaghetti Legs’ McQuince…” 1
“… One oddity of this book is that only in the footnotes does the author lay bare the deviousness, larcenies, six divorces, catastrophic investments, and Lucullan appetites of the hubristic hurler…”
So do you want to read the book now —or just the rest of the notes? 2
n. 1. Caveat lector: The second excerpt, beginning with “Aficionados…” inadvertently offers a compelling reason not to buy the book.
n. 2. In fairness, I acknowledge that there are still a few living readers who prefer print. In the interests of full disclosure, I should also point out that, in this case, the notes appear both in the printed book and, as stated, on the website. This gives my reader choices: whether to buy the book; and, if so, whether to read the text and/or the printed notes; or whether to just read the online notes.