I was asked an interesting question by a follower of this weblog: “Do you read all of the footnotes?”
What a convenient question. I had intended to include my thoughts on footnotes in the previous post but somehow overlooked the opportunity.
The answer is no, yes, and occasionally. First, having experienced worthless footnotes in texts that evidently assume I’m a low grade cretin, I often try to avoid footnotes and when I unthinkingly drift to the bottom of the page I inevitably utter a guttural expletive for having been duped once again and injecting uselessness into the flow of my reading. However, in some serious texts (generally “non-fiction”) I will glance at the notes to expand my knowledge (do you know the key personages in the Thirty Years’ War?) but too often I am disappointed with yet-another ibid or loc cite.
I definitely prefer end-notes to footnotes; however, I tend to pre-read the end-notes in batches to avoid those pesky interruptions while reading. This also allows me to skim over obvious glosses and ignore bibliographic references that don’t interest me.
Worse than reading footnotes is writing footnotes. I never did get the hang of those Ibids and op cites. In college I first experimented with having the dog eat my footnotes, but then I was accused of failing to attribute adequately (is that a law?). Remember, back then we were lucky to own a typewriter (there were rooms on campus where the less fortunate could jam the keys o an old Underwood) and word processors, let alone computers, were not even a dream. Typing our precious theme papers late on the night before they were due, too often resulted in excess retyping simply because the text went too long to include the footnotes. One year I experimented with typing the footnotes on a second, facing page, positioned at the same level as the reference so as to reduce eye movement and confusion. I ended up using twice the required paper and only one professor though it was even okay in a strict academic environment.
No wonder I prefer endnotes.
Here’s a followup question: Do you read bibliographies? When involved with academic study, bibliographies can lead to new sources of elucidation, adding to our knowledge base and expanding our understanding. But too many bibliographies nowadays are acknowledgments of the work of other authors (fine but especially in fiction isn’t research assumed and we can leave it at that), publishers’ filler to make a text seem more involved and more important than it might actually be, or out-and-out fraud attempting to befuddle the reader into believing the veracity of clap-trap (Ann Coulter comes to mind here).
Of course, there are contemporary works which rely on footnotes to expand or contrast the narrative. David Foster Wallace is a good example and then there’s Mark Z. Danielewski. Didn’t Enrique Vila-Matas write a complete novel that left out the text and only included the footnotes?
1 I pulled this out of my butt, pg. 162.