Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Which I Explain My Youthful Fear of Footnotes

Yesterday I told you how Martin Gardner's THE ANNOTATED ALICE got me thinking about authorial intent, and about the power of commenting on someone else's text. Both of those are big topics in JIHAD COMIX, the novel I have plotted out (kind of) for National Novel Writing Month.

I was about twelve when I encountered Gardner's/Carroll's amazing book.

Since this blog is (for a while) about the important books I ate along the way while building this novel, I should mention, too, something important that happened about four years earlier. My dad began reading Mark Twain's TOM SAWYER to me. Then, seeing how much I loved it, (bless his heart) he challenged me to finish reading it on my own.

I was used to comic books, in part because they were highly visual. This was almost all text, though -- there were only a few illustrations -- and there was a lot of text to deal with. I was navigating my first real novel.

I got the hang of it before too long, in part by imagining what it would sound like if my dad had been reading the text.

Along about page 114, though, Twain threw me a curveball: a footnote!

[* If Mr. Harbison owned a slave named Bull, Tom
would have spoken of him as ‘Harbison’s Bull,’ but a son 
or a dog of that name was ‘Bull Harbison.’] 


I know it sounds very weird indeed, but the truth is that footnote scared me.

Think of it from a child's perspective. I was absorbed in reading a great story, and that footnote took me right out of Tom's world, which I didn't expect. In my mind, I had been sharing this great book with my dad, happily having a private moment with him. Yes, that moment was fantasy-driven, but it was our moment just the same, and the fantasy of him reading to me was how I was making it through TOM SAWYER ... which was, at that point, the Biggest Book I Had Ever Read. I was proud of myself, like a one-year-old showing off to himself and others how easy it is to walk.

Then, all of a sudden, this new and different and wholly unfamiliar voice jumps into the story! Who WAS this person who had intruded on my private moment with my dad and me? Had he been eavesdropping the whole time I was reading? Would he keep listening in on us?

It really gave me the creeps. I almost told my dad about how much it bothered me. Then I decided not to, because the whole thing was just too weird. Then forty-three years passed. And I decided to tell you.