Go Set a Footnote: Reading in the Age of the Smartphone

MockingbirdGoodreads tells me I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in 2007, the year my daughter was born.

Not surprisingly, I don’t remember it. I don’t remember much from 2007 that didn’t have a picture taken of it.

When all the fuss over the release of Go Set a Watchman erupted last year, I thought to myself, I really should read To Kill a Mockingbird again.

The resolution remained vaguely formed, dressed in warm winter layers of good intent until a week or two ago, when Harper Lee’s death reminded me of my plan and a well-timed cold gave me an excuse to spend a day on our Very Large Red Reading Couch.

It had been so long since I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird that the book read like new to me. Perhaps, a friend of mine suggested, it was because I am a mother now, and The (now) Eight-Year-Old gave me a deeper appreciation for Lee’s Scout.

There is definitely something to that. But I also think that some of it had to do with the ease with which I could look up references that puzzled me.

Used to be, when I came across a passage with a reference I didn’t fully understand, I would keep reading in hopes that the reference would either come clear in time or turn out not to be that important for enjoying the book anyway.

Most of the time, I got by just fine, but I couldn’t help suspecting that my reading experiences were a bit poorer for it.

But now all I have to do now to demystify an opaque reference is place the book down for a moment while I google something quickly on my iPhone.

Take this passage from page 18 for instance:

“Miss Caroline was no more than twenty-one. She had bright auburn hair, pink cheeks, and wore crimson fingernail polish. She also looked and smelled like a peppermint drop. She boarded across the street one door down from us in Miss Maudie Atkinson’s upstairs front room, and when Miss Maudie introduced her to us, Jem was in a haze for days.

Miss Caroline printed her name on the blackboard and said, “This says I am Miss Caroline Fisher. I am from North Alabama, from Winston County.” The class murmured apprehensively, should she prove to harbor her share of the peculiarities indigenous to that region. (When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama, and every child in Maycomb County knew it.) North Alabama was full of Liquor Interests, Big Mules, steel companies, Republicans, professors, and other persons of no background.”

The humor in it shone through for me even as the passage raised all sorts of questions. Did Winston County really secede from Alabama at the start of the Civil War?

And what, my mind whispered a bit trepidatiously, are Big Mules?

I put down To Kill a Mockingbird and picked up my iPhone.

Hey Google, did Winston County really secede from Alabama in 1861?

Wikipedia tells me that Winston County didn’t officially secede from Alabama during the Civil War. But it didn’t exactly buy into the ideals of the Confederacy either.

A Winston Country Farmer. (Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives)
A Winston County farmer. (Courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives)

In a nutshell, the shallow soil in Winston County wasn’t suited for plantation-style agriculture, so the residents of Winston County at the time of the Civil War were mostly poor farmers. Few owned slaves. When the Civil War erupted and Alabama voted to secede, Winston Country residents viewed the secession talk with extreme skepticism. As far as they could tell, secession was just another way to consolidate power in the hands of the wealthy plantation elite.

Charles Christopher Sheats, Winston County’s representative at the Alabama Secession Convention, flatly refused to sign Alabama’s Ordinance of Secession when it passed in January 1861. He was so vocal in his opposition that he was arrested and flung in jail. His support for the Union ensured that he would spend most of the war in prison.

Sheats was not the only anti-Confederate voice in Winston County. Many Winston County residents refused to join the Confederate Army. Some went so far as to talk of raising troops to support the Union. Eventually, after repeated attempts by Confederate authorities to impose conscription and loyalty oaths on those recalcitrant Winstonites, Winston County passed a resolution stating that if a state could secede from the Union, then a county could secede from the state.

The resolution created a new name for the region, “The Republic of Winston,” feeding the urban legend that when Alabama seceded from the Union, Winston County had seceded from Alabama.

In fact, Winston County remained part of Alabama throughout the Civil War, although its loyalty to the Confederacy was always in question. When the Union Army invaded northern Alabama in April 1862, many of the pro-Union Winston County residents took the opportunity to join the Union Army as part of its new 1st Alabama Cavalry Regiment.

After the war, Winston County became friendly territory for carpet-bagging Republicans in a state run primarily by Democrats. As To Kill a Mockingbird makes clear, the residents of Winston County continued to be viewed with extreme skepticism by the rest of Alabama for generations.

Hey Google, what are Big Mules?

Big Mules, according to this article from the New Yorker, were entrenched corporate interests, the power brokers in the deeply segregated Alabama of the 1950s.

Given the fact that I’m constantly googling things on my iPhone while I read, you’d think I’d love relaxing with a nicely footnoted classic novel.

warPeaceThe funny thing is, I’m reading an annotated edition of War and Peace right now and the zillions of little footnotes explaining the history behind the passages are driving me nuts. I feel compelled to read them, and with one or more on nearly every page I am constantly being taken out of the story.

So why am I pleased to gain a deeper understanding of the story when it comes courtesy of the iPhone, and not when it comes via the super-convenient don’t-even-have-to-put-the-book-down footnote?

I’m pretty sure the difference is that the footnotes are pulling me out of the story at a time not of my choosing. When I’m reading a classic novel, I don’t want to know the nitty-gritty of every historical reference that someone else deems essential to my understanding of the story. I just want to know the basic facts of the historical references that interest me.

Certainly I can elect to ignore that small army of footnotes and plow merrily through War and Peace without pausing to consider each example of Tolstoy’s exquisite use of history in crafting his novel. And I am.

But I can’t help seeing those poor ignored footnotes waiting patiently at the bottom of the page. Ignore us, they seem to say, and you are deliberately choosing a poorer reading experience.

What kind of self-respecting reader of War and Peace would choose to do something like that?

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