Gerhard Weinberg & The Secret Dialogue Of Footnotes

by on October 19, 2004

in Books

I’m one of those geeks who reads books with two bookmarks. Not always, but I’ll decide whether I need two bookmarks when I start a new non-fiction book by scanning the footnotes section.

I read footnotes. There, I said it.

I have one bookmark to mark the page I’m currently reading and the other to hold my place in the footnotes. And I read a lot of history. In history books, authors will often use footnotes not just to cite source material, but to expand upon or further clarify points made in the book proper. It also often leads the reader to other great books of which they wouldn’t have otherwise known.

I am currently reading A World At Arms by Gerhard Weinberg, which is a very good comprehensive history of World War II. It is one of those books that you plow through because it is thorough and exceedingly informative yet, while clearly written, the writing is not exactly a breeze to get through.

Including footnotes, the book is 1,125 pages long.

So, yesterday I was reading a passage about espionage and signals intelligence that discussed the rivalry between British intelligence agencies, how those rivalries often lead to disaster, and how those disasters were used by one intelligence agency to discredit another. The footnote to this passage made the point that the similarities of the rivalries between intelligence agencies in Germany, Britain, and the US "simply cries out for a comparative analysis."

It sounded to me like a plea. So it occurred to me that Weinberg was using his footnotes not simply–as he’d been doing throughout the book–to inform the reader that there is a dearth of scholarly investigation to the subject matter at hand, but to alert and encourage scholars themselves to fill in the sketchy areas with their own research and analysis.

After all, despite the fact that I’m reading the book, A World At Arms is not a piece of popular history in the tradition of such historians as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, and Michael Beschloss. It is meant for scholars.

I was rather delighted when it dawned on me that he was speaking to his fellow historians and encouraging them to fill in the dark spots of our collective knowledge. It is a beautiful thing when the human need to discover is so clealy illustrated and even more pointedly so, when seen within the context of the oppressive societies of World War II, where that need would be largely starved.

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