Too many books are printed in St. Ives. I came to this conclusion as I harvested publication details for the bibliography of my latest paper. Students and scholars alike dread the tedious duty of transcribing this information—from the name of publishers to the year of publication—into the footnotes and reference lists of their essays. And, according to academic procedures, one must mention where the book was printed. That’s how I noticed that my paperback editions of Nietzsche, Weil, Foucault, Burke, and others all seem to originate from St. Ives. I wonder why publishers seem so keen to print their books in this small Cornish resort. I remember that the band Another Sunny Day recorded a B-side called “A Boy from St. Ives,” but that’s all I know about this seaside town.
Once I completed my bibliography, I took to Google to learn how St. Ives had become a printing hub. The results embarrassed me. St. Ives was not the geographical location of the printers, but, rather, the name of the printing company. For several years, I have written “Printed in St. Ives” in countless bibliographies for college assignments. As misunderstandings go, it is minor. In the aftermath of this discovery, I wonder why including the location of the printers is necessary. Surely, the name of the publisher and the year of publication suffices. I doubt any professor feels the need to call up printing companies—whether they operate in St. Ives or not—to check that they printed a certain book in a certain year.
There are a few theories about why books declare where they were printed. An expert on book dealing suggests that mentioning the location of the printers was intended to prove the authenticity of a book to customs officials. Geographical discrepancies between the publishers’ headquarters and the printers’ offices would raise an eyebrow of suspicion and justify seizure of the contraband. Yet, the image of a customs officer inspecting one’s books seems to belong to a quaint and bygone era. I say, spare oneself the stress and download the PDF. Additionally, the joys and woes of global trade mean that a publisher and a printer can strike a deal despite national barriers. For instance, my copy of Eva Illouz’s illuminating and invigorating Cold Intimacies: The Making of Emotional Capitalism was published by Polity Press—based in Cambridge, United Kingdom, and Malden, Massachusetts—typeset in Hong Kong, and printed and bound in Malaysia.
Despite these changes, the spirit of the inquisitive customs officer still pervades the task of writing a bibliography:
“What are you reading? Who wrote it? Where’s it from? What year was it written?”
Listing citations is like answering a swift stream of questions in an interrogation room.
The tedious and persnickety ordeal of writing footnotes is one of the humbler tasks of critical thought, because it pushes you to reconsider whether you trust your chosen sources. Not only should you judge the veracity and trustworthiness of your own references, you should take the effort to examine the references of your references. Carefully reading the footnotes of other authors tests your trust in the written word. Not everything printed on a page is an authentic expression of a writer’s thoughts. They might cite a study and contort the interpretations of the findings to suit their argument. Theory can precede data, rather than the other (and right) way around. We live in a time when everyone is urged to check the facts of everything they see and read. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves and others, we might admit that we are not always as attentive and skeptical as we should be. Sometimes, we can be eagerly credulous when someone says something that suits our sensibility and convictions. Writing footnotes forces one to check the basic facts—who wrote this, who published it, when was it published, etc.—and start to build a case for why a source should be trusted or doubted.
Taking the credibility or dishonesty of a source seriously is the sign of a sincere scholar. Questioning the smallest fact—Why are all these books printed in St. Ives?—and seeking an answer—St. Ives is just the name of the company—are two of those intellectual chores that help to cultivate a tidy and meticulous mind. Scrutinizing the words of others teaches you to look at your own work in a more critical light. As soon as one completes a paragraph, one should re-read it and ask oneself, “is this what I honestly think and believe?” I know that struggling to meet one’s deadlines at the end of the semester means that most students do not have the time for this type of intellectual sincerity. Conclusions are often reached for the sake of expedience. Maybe we should train ourselves to think about the task of writing as a more significant endeavor than merely finishing a paper by a certain date. Truly, reading and writing admits you into a long conversation that started before you even learnt to pick up a pen.
In an interview with The Atlantic, the linguist N. J. Enfield attempts to explain why we make small oral sounds—from “ummm” to “mmhmm”—to fill gaps in conversations. Most of these noises are social cues that we are paying attention to the speaker and agreeing with what they are saying. They are the unspoken substance of most human conversation. Enfield talks to the interviewer about transcribing interviews from the recording to the page, and ponders why all these seemingly inconsequential noises are edited out as the conversation is converted into an article. Enfield observes that “conversation is all draft;” books and articles are finished products.
I disagree with that judgement. Final drafts and completed works rarely represent an ending. At the same time, a first draft is nothing like the real beginning of a work. No moment of education or stage of composition embodies a start or end. Properly speaking, I think that lessons and essays “come to fruition.” Nothing illustrates the joyful and intense undertakings of learning and writing more than the word “fruition.” Nowadays, the word refers to the realization of a plan or project, or the period when a tree or vine bears fruit. Etymologically, fruition comes from the Late Latin fruitionem, which means “enjoyment.” The fruition of a letter or poem or treatise represents a cadence—perfect or imperfect—in the long, lustful tune of life. Writing is the act of taking pleasure in something beyond your comprehension, in a language that precedes and outlasts us all.
My former professor Anne-Marie Oliver once observed that chalk is the perfect metaphor for the enterprise of education and the transmission of knowledge. She remarks that “true chalk is something marked by an extreme fragility, friability, dustability, temporality . . . These attributes signified that it was once alive and that it possessed still the power of thingness, that is, something susceptible to damage, destruction, death, and accordingly, something human or humanlike. And this stuff was used to form words, dead things that live on and are constantly reanimated in the brains of other beings.” Chalk is formed of prehistoric and fossilized matter that leaves dust all over your fingers and makes marks—equations, illustrations, and quotations—on the blackboard. Coincidentally, the contents of books are printed onto the pulped remains of dead trees. Every page serves as a reminder of death.
Education and death are more intimately linked than most people think. I thumb through my copy of Vilem Flusser’s Writings (published by University of Minnesota Press in 2002, printed in the United States of America—somewhere—on acid-free paper) in search of his moving definition of human communication. According to this idiosyncratic philosopher and polygot, “human communication is an artistic technique whose intention it is to make us forget the brutal meaninglessness of a life condemned to death.” Writing is the art of making meaning out of meaninglessness. Death—that final moment of becoming nothingness—fuels our desperate need to leave something behind. Oddly enough, there is a striking resemblance between the format of footnotes and inscriptions on gravestones: the name of the author, the title of the work, the year of publication, etc.
Another former professor of mine encouraged me to always conclude with the “thinking answer,” rather than the absolute one. To be honest and ironic, it seems that the only truly absolute answer is death. You cannot argue or disagree with that inevitability. So, what are answers? There are exact answers (printed in Great Britain by the St. Ives Group), elusive answers (“well, it depends on what you mean by ‘advance’…”), and honest answers (“I don’t know yet”). What exactly is the “thinking answer”? Answering a question thoughtfully means that one’s work comes to fruition, rather than to an end. Thinking answers should show the enjoyment of thought, just as writing should convey the enjoyment of words. Although typing up references is the least enjoyable part of the writing process, it is a mark of gratitude. Taking the time to write footnotes represents humility and honesty. Footnotes reveal that you are indebted to those who came before you, and express the hope that you might be able to serve future scholars in a similar way. The old and witty philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once quipped that Western Philosophy is just a bunch of footnotes to Plato. I disagree and claim that philosophy—and thought in general—is just a long line of footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to footnotes. The history of thought is more like the Talmud than the Bible, more like a first draft than a final copy. The footnote protects us from forgetting the origin of originality, and reminds us that no one ever comes up with the absolute answer. More importantly, the footnote is invitation to think with others—from our predecessors to our descendants—and enjoy every thought as it unfolds.