Books I’m Reading

In a classic case of she’s-just-published-a-new-book-so-I’m-going-to-read-her-old-ones, I’m currently enjoying Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind. Let me present to you a table of contents for the book, although a slightly different one than that actually found in (anybody’s) Beautiful Mind.

Front matter miscellany  1%
Actual book                   63%
Notes                            19%
Select Bibliography         1%
Acknowledgments           Negligible
Index                             16%

So the part of the book that most people actually read makes up 63% of the entire tome, while the back matter — sources and index — constitutes 36%, more than half of the traditional, middle matter text. I suppose this is the mark of academic-trade books, that is, books aimed at the general readership but written in a subject and manner scholarly enough to brush against academic publishing. Also, the fact that Nash himself did not cooperate in Nasar’s biography of him means that she had to piece together his story from a multitude of sources. The extensive notes are both a record of those sources and a means to legitimate Nasar’s work.

In contrast, consider John T. Appleby’s Henry II  The Vanquished King. The “notes” section in Henry II is entirely missing; the bibliography is a mere 3-page long (0.8% of a 357 page book) with a note referring the still-curious readers to another book; the index stretches to 7 pages, or 3% of the book.

What explains the differences in documentation of the two books? It could be that the degrees of scholarship intended in the works are different — Appleby’s book is not considered the authoritative work on Henry II, while Nasar’s is the only book on John Nash.  (I believe the most authoritative account on Henry II’s life is that by W.L. Wawrren.) It could be the progression of time — Appleby’s book was published in 1962; Nasar’s  in 1998, and modern technology has certainly made indexing a more automated and easier matter. It could be due to the subject matter — Nasar was writing about a living person, Appleby one who has been dead for almost a millennium. It is arguable, therefore, that Nasar had a richer well of information to draw from than Appleby, and thus more copious back matter. All of these factors are plausible, but how much of each do you think contributes to the overall marked difference?

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2 Responses to Books I’m Reading

  1. Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History takes the prize for having the most comprehensive notes relative to text. The text of her book, including a foreword and all the preliminary paratextual materials, make up 51% of the book. The rest are notes. 51% — barely the majority. Put differently, there was almost as much to be said about sources and parenthetical remarks as there were to actually remark. An enjoyable little book for its unusual proportions nonetheless.

  2. Aha! So one of the reasons for being more careful with research on a biography of a living person than a dead one and hence using more footnotes is that American laws “provide essentially no protection against defamation” for a dead person. See Ray Madoff’s “Immortality and the Law” for all this & other super juicy information regarding the legal consequences of death!

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