This is Epth Nation

Epth is a state of mind, not a place. Reading this will give you a virtual drivers license in that state, but you'll still need to be 21 to purchase alcohol. And you can't get any there anyway, so stop asking.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Footnotes, David Foster Wallace, and You

The thing I found online that precipitated this post is found here. Gosh, I've linked to a lot of sites today. Anyway, I've decided to try and make you people understand why I like David Foster Wallace's style, specifically his footnotes. They and he have come under fire lately, in the article I just linked to, in other literary outlets (which have tons of backhandedly complimentary reviews of his latest book of short stories, Oblivion -- nearly every single one says something like, "Thankfully, there are very few footnotes."), my wife, my reader Brian, etc. The hatred spewed towards the footnotes usually mentions the fact that it's a pain to stop in the middle of an article (and sometimes in the middle of a sentence), look up the footnote, and go back and try to remember what you were reading. It's an issue of hassle and mental investment, when you get right down to it.

I understand that, and (being a person who hates hassle) I maybe even agree with it a little bit. But allow me to suggest that one purpose of the footnotes is to get you to slow down and actually understand what you are reading. DFW is a hard writer to undertand sometimes -- he uses super big words that barely exist and he inserts abbreviations that make the text seem like it's either written in shorthand or a long-forgotten English dialect. If you have to slow down and read things twice, he knows you will have a better chance of knowing what he's getting at.

As a person who has a tendency to over-parenthesize everything, the footnotes make the text look more streamlined. Has it occurred to you people that you don't actually have to read the footnotes? The text rolls along just fine if you skip them. But that brings us to the crux of the issue, doesn't it? The stuff in the footnotes is valuable. It's often very funny. You don't want to miss out, so you go through the hassle just to see what's there. That is the main reason I like them -- they're often better than the main text.

All of this brings us to the real reason I think DFW uses footnotes -- he is trying to establish a tone with them, a tone that is more conversational and irreverant than would be possible given his big words and overproper grammatical style. It is as if he is creating a second voice to comment on the voice of the main text, removed from the main text and therefore more free and easy. I'm admittedly just talking out of thin air here.

Embrace the footnote, America.


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