By ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ - Published: October 7, 2011C
When my my dog, Pumpernickel, first found a stray grape on my kitchen floor, she licked at it, tumbled it around in her mouth and spat it out. She accepted a lot of food from my plate not traditionally thought of as interesting to dogs: carrots, broccoli, bagels. But she would not eat grapes, nor was she fond of raisins.
More than a decade later, I included this anecdote in my book about dog cognition, to open a chapter on domestication. I had subsequently learned that raisins — and grapes — “are now suspected of being toxic to some dogs, even in small amounts (though the mechanism of toxicity is unknown) — leading me to wonder whether Pump was instinctively averse to raisins,” as I added in a footnote.
A footnote. I did not include the facts about the toxicity of grapes in the anecdote itself, because, well, it’s not part of the anecdote. I did not include it in the main body of the chapter because, well, it has nothing to do with domestication. But I thought it was note-worthy and maybe even important, so I assigned it to the small type at the bottom of the page.
Since typing that small type, I have received dozens of angry and concerned queries about the anecdote. Why had I fed her grapes? Did I not know they were toxic? After some back-and-forth, I was surprised to discover that these incredulous comments often came from readers of the electronic version of my book, where the footnotes are shunted off to the end of the text, relegated to being mere endnotes. If footnotes are at risk of going unread, endnotes are even more so.
Of course, scholarly books are still full of footnotes. The prototypic footnote is the source note, providing a citation for each proclamation in the text (early annotations were sometimes called “proofs”). These footnotes range from useful to pedantic, sometimes lending an air of authority, sometimes providing a map of the writer’s path. Legal writing in particular is rife with these footnotes, perhaps an acknowledgment that law is built on laws-past.
But I champion another species of footnote: the wandering footnote. These digressive notes, seeing a sentence that some might consider complete, determine to hijack it with a new set of ever more tangential facts. In the wayward note, the bumps and curves of the author’s mind seem to be laid plain on the paper. I came of intellectual age hearing the author’s sotto voce asides in the philosophy essays I loved. I still recall footnotes that begin, enticingly, “Imagine that . . . ”; “Consider . . . ”; or even, in one of J. L. Austin’s famous thought experiments, “You have a donkey. . . . ” I had the feeling of being taken into confidence by a wise fellow during an erudite lecture, and being told something even more clever and lucid.
Full essay at The New York Times.
Alexandra Horowitz is the author of “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.”