an aside on asides

For as long as i’ve read books (which admittedly isn’t actually nearly as long as most people in this line of work), i’ve had a strong preference in the whole endnotes versus footnotes debate.* I actually read them. So, i find it incredibly annoying when they’re all tucked away in the back of the book somewhere, nowhere near the content to which they actually apply. I’m sure there are folks out there who prefer endnotes, if that’s you, can you share why? I’m genuinely curious.

Over this break, i’ve had the chance to catch up on a handful of books that have been sitting on the “i really should read that” pile for a while. And in line with the above, i’ve found that the footnotes in John Levi Martin’s Social Structures add nearly as much to the quality of the book as does the text itself. And that’s saying something. Thus far (i’m only about half done with it at the moment, but still have a plane ride back to Phoenix from the east coast tomorrow night) i’ve found it to be a really good, well written book. In fact, i’m considering it for my grad theory class for next year, and even thinking about what role it might play in any new grad networks classes i might get the chance to offer here in the next few years.

So, my question (for any of you book writers out there) is this. i know that publishers have strong tendencies for only footnotes or endnotes. And i think i have a hunch as to why they do. But isn’t it mostly legacy, and not really that relevant for the way publishing actually happens today? That to say, if i were to write a book and land a contract with a publisher who prefers footnotes, could we negotiate to get that one “right”? Or, in this (as of now) highly unlikely future hypothetical scenario, should i shop my manuscript with a publisher’s previous practices in mind?
*I’m not actually talking about their use for in-text citations (for which i actually think i really like the ASA approach). I’m just talking about the cases when they are used as asides/elaborations/divergences/etc. from the main text.


8 Responses to an aside on asides

  1. Brian Pitt says:

    I’m with you; I abhor endnotes because I want to see the citation/note while I am engaging the book.

  2. I also share your preference for footnotes. One great thing about digital media is that we are becoming more able to customize how information is presented and discovered. If they don’t already, the Kindle people should allow you to change endnotes into footnotes with the touch of a button.

  3. i think people sometimes use endnotes with the hopes that they won’t be read. for instance, i’ve always thought that the “saints of greenwich village” critique of Sidewalk is fair for the main text but not at all fair if you read the endnotes and appendices, where Mitch puts a lot of the dirt. i’ve never asked him, but i suspect that he wrote the book this way as a kind of Straussian esoteric text so his professional colleagues would get the complete and subtle story about his field site whereas undergrads, policymakers, and other dangerous people would see a more polished account that was less likely to be “misinterpreted” for reactionary purposes.

  4. Footnotes and endnotes both are a frustration to me. I share your enjoyment of their content. I hate their disruption of the flow of the main body. Especially in law review articles, where nearly every sentence is footnoted, the effect is disorienting.

    Nabokov and Csikszentmihalyi solved this problem by writing the endnotes as standalone narratives. But this is still not an ideal solution.

    My question: At the nitty gritty level, how are you reading a text that its heavily foot- or endnoted? Are you reading a full paragraph, and then the notes. A sentence? A page? What is the opportune moment to interrupt the main body of the narrative with a glance down or a flip back?

  5. jimi adams says:

    Michael – i actually don’t think very linearly and often don’t read that way either. Personally, i have to work very hard in my writing to eliminate the asides/parentheticals/etc. and the end result feels very unnatural to me. But i do it, because i know that’s the expectation in what i write. But i wouldn’t like to have to remove those additional bits altogether from what i write, and find journals that outlaw foot- and endnotes altogether extremely difficult to write to.

    That as a roundabout way of getting to an answer to your question about how “at the nitty gritty level…[i] read a text that is heavily foot- or endnoted?” Personally, i read much the way i think, and therefore take in the foot- or endnotes almost exactly where they are denoted (at the end of a paragraph/sentence, mid-sentence, pretty much whatever). In a way i am (likely unfairly) forcing my thinking/writing style onto the writers i read. Thus, i generally read most books with a finger lodged in the references section, and if there are endnotes – another lodged there, so i can readily flip back and forth. Believe it or not, i actually think i absorb what i read better when broken up this way than if i were flipping through neat linear concise prose, pages at a time. i suspect i am unusual in this, but perhaps not.

    On the practical side though, my feeling is that if they are there as footnotes, someone who reads the way i do is happy, but someone who doesn’t read footnotes at all can be as well…they just turn the pages quicker than i do, no? But with endnotes, it only works for those who want to skip/batch them.

  6. That sounds pretty similar to how I read. I guess I don’t enjoy foot/end notes as much because for many authors, the payoff from the interruption is low. Maybe it takes me slightly longer to reestablish the flow of the main body after a foot/endnote.

    The good use of endnotes would be where they are there only so that readers can find the original sources. If there is any commentary from the author, then that should be in footnotes.

    Have you seen Wolfram’s *A New Kind of Science*? He has endotes on his footnotes!

  7. Kate Brodock says:

    Jimi –

    I COMPLETELY agree with you on this. Especially when the footnotes/endnotes not only give the reference, but also further commentary. What? You’re going to make me flip to 176 to get more juicy stuff?

    It’s not as annoying if it’s at the end of a chapter, but still not ideal.

    Also, if you have footnotes and you don’t read them, well great, you read faster then, right?

    Either way, as Bishop mentioned above, electronically, this whole issue could be made easier. If you just to a page tag, or you can click directly to the footnote while you’re reading, that’s great (although that’s another issue, I hate reading much more than a blog post online).


  8. Michael Bishop says:

    Kate, have you played with a kindle much? I think the inconveniences and eye-strain associated with reading online will disappear soon. p.s. I like your predictions for 2010

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