The (aste)risks of clarity
Not long ago* a gentleman made me a present of a book n1, and as it was a history of the Updike Shipping & Drydock Corporationn n2, in which one of our ancestors n3 was an officer n4 and for some forty years n5 a sea captain (finally of the Lysistrata n6, flagship of the Updike fleet n7), I was eager to get into the book to learn more about this East Indian trading firm. The book n8 was written, or perhaps compiled is the word n9, by two professors n10 at Booneville University n11 who are disoriented devotees of the ubiquitous footnote, and everything they researched about Updike Shipping n12 was carefully acknowledged and annotated at the bottom of the pages, so I was bobbing up and down like two tots on a teeter n13. I simply gave up n14. This copious use of of footnotes seems to be a failing of scientific and academic writers, perhaps because in the ''publish or perish'' world a reader is less important than getting in print n15. A real writer n16 knows full well that if he is lucky enough to have a reader he wants to hang onto him, and never frighten him away with asterisks n17.
n1 ''The Updike Shipping & Drydock Corporation,'' hard cover, W.W. Norton, New York, 1978, 277 pp., index, illustrated.
n2 Of Bombay, and Searsport, Maine.
n3 Half-brother of my paternal great-grandfather; Niah Jordan Gould.
n4 Treasurer and chairman of the board.
n5 Forty-two years; from age 16 to 58.
n6 Of 2,500 tons.
n7 At one time of 34 bottoms.
n8 Op. cit.
n9 The authors did little more than arrange the excerpts their research provided from already published works.
n10 Garfield, Roger, and Soames, Leonard.
n11 Boonesville, N.H., co-ed, 1,100 students.
n13 A seesaw.
n14 After five pages.
n15 It is doubtful whether some of those things ever get read at all.
n16 Such as me and a few others.
n17 The word asterisk derives from the Greek asteriskos, which means a little star. The asterisk is made thus - * - and does indeed seem to be a little star. In lengthy academic literary works where innumerable referrals are made, the asterisk may be assisted by other signs, by numerals (1, 2, 3), and by letters (A, B, C, or a, b, c). When footnotes come like sorrows in Hamlet,+, each should be clearly distinguished to avoid confusion.
Some writers of this sort do not stop with the asterisk, but add the appendix and the illustration to baffle the readers even more. In combination, all are tremendously effective. Take this little pamphlet put out by an experiment station about the culture of raspberries - its literary potential held well in check by its purpose of promoting a BS degree. The asterisk diverts the attention downward, and at the bottom of the page it says:
*See appendix, Note 28.
Note 28, found shortly in the appendix, says:
28. See Fig. 6, Page 111.
Under Fig. 6 on Page 111 it says, ''Photograph of raspberry cane afflicted with spur-blight (See text, P. 13).'' Page 13 is where all this started with an asterisk, and the reader has been gone for ten minutes or so with no profit from the narrative.
The table can substitute for the figure, but as figures are identified by number, the table uses letters. Figure 1, but Table A. In treatises aimed at a PhD, Roman numerals may be used; Table X, Table XIX. This is real by highbrow literature. Here is a document of rare scholarship devoted to the growing of tomatoes in the northern counties, and I was reading about the chromatographic methods of evaluating the pro-vitamin A in tomatoes of wide varietal differences , as compared with a simple spectrophotometer calibration curve with beta-carotene, when my keen attention was rudely turned aside by the parenthetical: (See Table VII). Table VII listed 28 kinds of tomatoes for which seeds are no longer available, and in sadness for the good old kinds that have gone limbo because of hybrids, I found it difficult to return to the text.
*The night before last.
+In fact, our son. Act 4, Scene 5, line 78.