footnotes, endnotes, othernotes

I teased you recently, in my review of On a Farther Shore (the new Rachel Carson biography by William Souder) with some thoughts on Notes. You may notice that this is my third post concerning Souder’s book. It has been rather thought-provoking, which is always nice.

Authors of nonfiction should cite their sources. I don’t think there’s much disagreement on this point. But to the question of how they should do it, there are several answers. The most common use a superscript number or other symbol in the text to refer the reader to more information elsewhere. Footnotes reside at the “foot” of the page, and endnotes are collected at the end of a chapter or a book. (I don’t read e-books, but surely there’s a clever way to imbed notes in the text in the form of little hyperlinks so that the reader can reference the note on the spot if she so chooses, which sounds convenient and reasonable [except that she’d have to be reading an e-book, so there’s a compromise].) The content of notes is often bibliographical, giving credit to the author’s source for a piece of information, but can also allow the author to further discuss a point, like a long parenthetical outside of the text itself.

There are pros and cons to footnotes and endnotes. Footnotes take up space on the page, and may be annoying to readers who don’t care about them. Endnotes can be inconveniently remote, for readers who do care – I’ve been known to use two bookmarks, one for where I’m reading in the main text and one for where I’m reading in the endnotes, so that I can quickly find the next note I’m directed to. I guess the main question, then, is whether the reader cares about the content of the notes in the first place. I suspect I’m fairly typical in that I am more likely to care about notes that offer further thoughts on the main text, than notes that only cite sources.

William Souder, in On a Farther Shore, uses endnotes, gathered all together in one long section (75 pages) at the end of the main text. At a glance, they appeared to be works cited, and I was going to leave it at that. Normally at the end of a nonfiction read, I look at the Acknowledgements, Notes, and sundry further thoughts, and read as much of it as attracts my attention (often most of it). In this case, I found that I had been wrong about the notes: most of them were citations, but there were some parenthetical-style remarks by Souder, describing his experience in researching the book (descendents of Carson and her friend Dorothy Freeman hosted him at their homes on the ocean; he wrote a chapter at Carson’s own desk) or expanding upon the text of the book. This was valuable! For example, I learned in a note that “in the 1950’s and 60’s it was common for doctors to discuss a cancer diagnosis with a woman’s husband and not with the patient herself – a disturbing practice that left the unmarried Carson in the dark about her condition.” (Souder notes in the main text that Carson’s ignorance about her condition and treatment options was all the more ironic and tragic because, as a scientist, she was more capable than the average man of understanding that information and using it to make decisions about her care.) This shocking detail seems important to me! I’m glad I came across it by accident – after which I read the notes through, and found other tidbits of value. For example, Souder emerges as a person with feelings and personal impressions only in his notes.

My point here is that I almost missed the notes that were valuable to me because I misunderstood their content. This isn’t necessarily an argument for footnotes over endnotes; but at least I might wish that Souder had made it a little more clear that there’s more than citations in that exhaustive 75 pages of notes at the back of his book. Keep your eyes open, kids.

What are your feelings about footnotes, endnotes, or othernotes?

7 Responses

  1. Personally I don’t like footnotes, but on occasion I do prefer if they were used instead of endnotes. And that’s because sometimes I get lazy and can’t be bothered to look for the endnotes. Now that I read for pleasure and not for work or school, I think I still prefer endnotes. They look better to me. I also like a bibliography section and not just endnotes.

    • I hear ya. It makes a difference whether we’re reading for pleasure or because it’s been assigned, certainly. And bibliographies should be considered mandatory, don’t you think? I find that works that require end- or footnotes generally do have bibliographies.

      • They go together for me and that’s why I’m shocked when non-fiction doesn’t include a bibliography. I usually won’t buy it so I can’t browse my shelf for an example. But I’ve seen a few recently.

  2. That is weird. I would have thought is is, always has been, and should be industry standard to include a bibliography if you’ve done research to write a book! Publishers, take note! In this era of fact-checking and “nonfiction” controversies I would think they’d be on top of this.

  3. I agree with your observations & preferences.

    Just finished reading Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” (recommended). In addition to a bibliography & an interesting “Sources” essay, he uses endnotes – but there are no notations in the text at all so unless you look for them you don’t even know they are there! In the notes (and there are many) he cites the page# and a brief quotation as a hint of what he is referencing (tough!) It’s very awkward if one was actually trying to follow them.

    Besides the essay, of interest to me was the extra commentary (like what you mentioned) which I read all at once later. Here’s what he said in explaining those extras:
    “for those readers who like reading footnotes – and there are many of you – I have included little stories and facts that did not fit the main narrative but that struck me as too interesting or compelling to omit. For this indulgence, forgive me.”
    I say, forgiven!

    • Another great example! I have In the Garden of Beasts on my iPod waiting in audio form; wonder how they’ll handle endnotes that way. (Strong guess: they won’t.) Hm.

  4. […] to quote, words or concepts I want to look up, thoughts I want to include in a review. I have also written before about footnotes; and on this subject I have some observations to make here. For one thing, the […]

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