The latest instalment comes once more from the lavatorial nook of an esteemed library: this time, the loos marked ‘Male Readers’ in the Bodleian.
There has been, for what seems many moons, a notice on one of the electric hand-dryers, which reads:
OUT OF ORDER
This has set my mind wondering: where in the library’s collection has regret been misplaced? Is there a space in the section for negative emotions, between chagrin and disappointment, where it should have been? It has not been lost, merely wrongly shelved, so where now might it be? In the allied section of memories, snuggling up to nostalgia? Or in a completely counter-intuitive part of the library, like the poorly-lit room given over to gustatory sensations? The Bodleian, at least, is optimistic that it will be returned to its rightful place: does this mean there is even now a wise member of staff hunting down regret in the recesses of the stacks? We wish them luck in their search, and hope that they will take care handling it, when found: regret can be so fragile, so insubstantially bound.
From Papa Ratzinger, a Christmas gift. The advent of tidings of great joy. To those who receive the newsletter of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana — a mere 12 thousand of them — it has been announced that the largest manuscript collection in the world will reopen to scholarship on Monday, 20th September 2010. Put that date in your diary.
For a long time, it has seemed that the Vatican would not dare to name a date: vague talk of ‘autumn 2010′ was all anyone could hear. It was like the process of closure itself. I happened to have arranged to go to the Vatican for ten days’ study in March 2007, and heard in Rome the rumours that it might close. So, when I renewed my card, I commented that ‘alcuni hanno detto’ that the Library will close. One member of staff said ‘e vero’ but her boss interrupted to clarify: ‘e vero che hai detto: alcuni hanno detto…’ It was apparent that direct questioning would receive no direct answer; I did wonder whether they were testing my knowledge of the Italian conditional (if the library were to close, for how long…).
A few months later, and a day at the Vatican was apparently like waiting for the January Sales outside Harrods, with the difference that nothing was cut-price or could be taken home. The queues are now legendary; the feats of scholars tied to their desks, avoiding any comfort break, to make the most before the intellectual apocalypse occurred, will be the stuff of memoirs.
In contrast to those months, the way the Vatican has kept readers informed and now announced a date, with an apparent determination that it is fixed, is to be applauded. But the applause, the cheering, the dewy-eyed relief will be so much greater when we can once more hand in our card, take the key to our locker, walk up the narrow staircase, eye the outstretched hand of divus Thomas, turn to our left, turn again and find ourselves in the haven of learning that is the sala manoscritti. How I hope to be there.
I was reading a review today which ends:
‘[The author] has also committed the considerable offence, which one would have thought the concentrated venom of reviewers would have killed off long ago, of herding all her notes together at the end of the book.’
The review appeared in History in 1939. Clearly, the tongue of reviewers, however spiteful, spits an ineffective poison.
And let us not be uncharitable: endnotes are not the worst. Even more infuriating are notes gathered at the end of each chapter. Nor are they the most unscholarly: that accolade should surely be reserved for the ‘author / date’ system which not only interrupts the text and often fails to provide enough citation to be usefully specific but also seems to arouse the spirit of Lethe, where the writer, their copy-editor and their publisher all forget to check that the full reference is actually included in the bibliography. Yet both styles seem to be gaining ground on the now old-fashioned footnote (it would be interesting to know what proportion of monographs use each system and how that changes over the years: does anyone have those figures to hand?).
Perhaps, though, we should remember that the footnote itself has not always been viewed with a kindly eye. Hilaire Belloc, in an essay curiously not mentioned in Tony Grafton’s The Footnote: a curious history, roundly rounded on the practice of freighting a page of text with the ballast of small-typed notes. A form of lying, he claimed, with Edward Gibbon accused of being its originator. His venom too was patently proven innocuous.