A Note on the Notes

I’m enjoying the Everyman’s edition of the Kalevala. I turned to the notes recently and caught up on them and was very pleased. There is an art to notes: they must be succinct in a way that stirs up desire for more but must not be exhaustive, and they must point from themselves in the right direction. These particular notes filled me with a desire for etymology and philology, but also a desire for the worlds of the other old languages mentioned, the mythology harbored in the consciousness tinged (tinge is weak) by that medium.

Good notes help the reader read more intelligently not only by imparting crucial information, but by guiding the reader eventually to ask good questions, to notice things in the text he might not otherwise notice. In a genre like the Kalevala, they guide the inexperienced reader into the peculiarities of its appreciation. So notes can be very important, able to foster love or to stifle it when they are clumsy.

It reminds me of two similar experiences. One is the experience I had of reading that learned book by William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen. It changed the way I looked at the text of the New Testament, began an understanding of the learning around that ancient document—particularly textual criticism. It was not a note, but compared to the New Testament, Ramsay’s book is like all the rest of philosophy to Plato.

The other experience is that of reading the notes of Tozer at the end of Knowledge of the Holy. Tozer was mostly very good at succinctness, and if those notes are not almost too succinct then nothing is. But they are not too succinct, they are enough and when followed open onto a whole new dimension of existence—at least they did for me. Such is the function of a proper Note.

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