I could loathe the asterisk, given the propensity of my symbolically minded colleagues to use it to indicate an alternate version of something, in language that makes my eyes glaze over and sends me racing back to the happy playground of political theory, right at the point where it becomes political science. So often it signals a dry distinction, a tedious point of logic, a use of symbols to obscure rather than enlighten. But most often when I see an asterisk in ordinary prose, my eyes race to the bottom of the page, to find the little juicy snippet of information that the author has placed there, because it didn’t quite fit into the text. Sometimes it’s just a date, but even that is interesting, allowing me to realise that particular lives crossed over, even if those who lived them didn’t meet, or that a particular event occurred just before, or just after, or at the same time, as something else I interested in. When I first read a fictional account of Richard III’s life, I was sceptical that there had been an eclipse on the day that his wife died, until at a suitable pause, the author inserted an asterisk, and at the bottom of the page, assured me that it was true, and that she would not have dared to make up such an improbable event. A kind editor let me know that “condescension” in Jane Austen’s time meant something rather closer to “graciousness” or perhaps “courteousness” in ours: otherwise I would have been rather put out by Emma reflecting that she “did not repent her condescension in going to the Coles.” Most of all, I enjoy asterisks in non-fiction books, when the extra information is not weighty enough to be included in the official footnotes, but it’s a point of interest. Perhaps it’s some quirky information about the topic, maybe an anecdote about the author, possibly a wry remark. It’s a little bit of communication from author directly to reader, a glimpse of colour, a pinch of chilli to enliven the chocolate. An asterisk is a tantalizing hint that there is more to be said.
That is why I like asterisks.