Monday, 15 April 2019

Footnotes Suck

I do quite a bit of peer-reviewing for a certain academic publishing house, which means I often get paid in kind with book vouchers. (Generally I prefer this over the cash option, because it is an opportunity to build my library with intellectual-looking books and make a show of being well-read. If I chose cash it would end up getting spent on beer.)

This means I have a big, and growing, collection of classical literature, from Homer to Camus and everything in between.

Generally speaking I love the reading, but the big exception is the footnotes. In almost all cases, these books are absolutely packed with explanatory footnotes (or endnotes), purportedly to help the reader better understand what is meant by an unusual word, phrase, or idiom. The impulse is a fine one. But the end result, of course, is not increased understanding but a worse reading experience. You just can't help yourself looking at the footnotes or flicking through to the endnotes whenever called to do so, and so at every turn immersion is shattered; it's like having somebody tap you on the shoulder every thirty seconds during reading to say, "This may be an indication of offerings made to the dead, or of a region of great fertility..." or "This is apparently from the Sanskrit [...]" or whatever. It's mildly interesting. But it's not the story, and eventually the story starts to get lost in the thicket of glosses and distractions.

Reading a work of classical literature, like The Iliad, is like reading a superior form of fantasy fiction, one in which the setting is richer and more detailed and interesting than anything a single person could just make up. The best reading experience therefore is to immerse yourself in it, just like you would with a great piece of fantasy or SF, trusting that you will learn what you need to about the setting via osmosis, and if there's something that went over your head, it probably wasn't important anyway. Footnotes and endnotes almost actively militate against this; the latter are more forgivable because the strong-willed can ignore them while reading and then just peruse them with interest afterwards, but the former are truly beyond the pale.

And don't get me started on Introductions and Prefaces.

14 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more. They're the predecessor of embedded hyperlinks in online articles: pitfall traps for the distractable (i.e. most or all of us).

    I'm torn over Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, in which Susannah Clarke uses footnotes quite effectively for immersive effect. Yet, overall, they probably hinder the narrative.

    In academic writing, the footnote or endnote is a close cousin of the constant hedging of almost every statement. Stephen Pinker (in The Sense of Style) and Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Tuner (in Clear and Simple as the Truth) are very good on this lamentable phenomenon.

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    1. You do need footnotes for referencing in my field. Explanatory footnotes are the pits.

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  2. An old English professor of mine (one of the world's foremost experts on Cardinal John Newman) similarly loathed introductions and prefaces.

    You make a powerful point. Perhaps the best thing for a scholarly edition of a primary source would be a two-book boxed set: The first volume containing solely the text and/or its translation, and the second volume containing all of the commentary the editor/translator might desire.

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    1. Yes, I like that idea. Except for the extra price it would all cost!

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  3. The worst kind of footnote or additions are those where there is a footnote or some preamble by a later author or collection of authors who ramble about their own pet peeves. I distinctly recall an edition of Dune (or was it a collection of several Dune books, can't remember) where there was a bunch of more modern authors writing about their interpretation of Dune's politics: it clearly read as something from the 2000 to 2010 and likely not what Herbert intended.

    I've also seen editions of Lovecraft's work with similar additions. That older fantasy and scifi works seems to be released with these kinds of preamble and annotations like if they're goddamn Mein Kampf seems a bit annoying and disturbing to me. Look, if I'm reading a Lovecraft compilation I know damn well what I'm go

    Its not the same as the great classics but its similar. There is nothing I'd hate more than get my hands on a copy of the Mahabharata and have a 5-10 page preamble about Modern Indian Politics, the Caste system, British Occupation and other nonsense.

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  4. The worst one was a three volume translation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms that I had in which all of the end note are at the END OF THE THIRD FUCKING VOLUME so you have to juggle two books if you want to look at any of the notes.

    For prefaces the preface of a translation of Njal's Saga tells you exactly what the ending is in the first paragraph. Yeesh.

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    1. A lot of prefaces do that. I never read them these days, for that and many other reasons.

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  5. "The best reading experience therefore is to immerse yourself in it... trusting that you will learn what you need to about the setting via osmosis, and if there's something that went over your head, it probably wasn't important anyway."

    Even if it is important, sometimes it's more fun to use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

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  6. But see Jack Vance, Borges

    Footnotes can be used to great effect in certain types of fiction because they enhance the illusion that you are reading a real, quasi-scholarly account/treatment.

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    1. That's true - the fake academic tome is an honourable exception.

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  7. I have read a couple of annotated books recently, and I have really enjoyed about 50% of the notes. Particularly with things that are "recent" (in this case early 1800s) the differences in how words are used and the value of money is something that needs to be explained. £100 is a totally different proposition now than it was then, but not in a totally linear way.

    On the other hand, I have read quite a number of (more academic) books where the footnotes are a complete waste of time, something not always apparent at the outset.

    Completely agree about prefaces though, particularly those that do anything more than "hey they wrote the book at this time period and this is a rough picture of their life". Spoiling the ending in the preface is a crime.

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    1. I have a version of Dostoyevsky's "Devils" in which the Preface not only has the ending but the crucial plot twist. I read it before reading the novel and it completely ruined it for me.

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  8. Another related problem - again, far more common among academics than it should be - is the refusal of an author to speak in their own voice.

    Quoting from primary sources is one thing (and a GOOD thing). But far too often, texts are sprinkled with quotations from secondary sources that could simply have been paraphrased. And of course, those needless quotations demand footnotes or endnotes - which are usually both uninspiring and unenlightening.

    At college, my tutor's rule was to quote secondary sources only when something had been expressed so well that you couldn't hope to match it - and then it should be no more than eight words. I think that's sound advice.

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