Some Notes About Footnotes

Why are footnotes generally composed of compound keys instead of being primary keys themselves? I’ve noticed that in most books I read that contain footnotes, the footnote renumbering restarts with each chapter. That means in order to uniquely identify a footnote you need to know the chapter and the note number. Wouldn’t it be easier to just to number them incrementally throughout the whole book?1

I’ve been thinking about this because I noticed this is exactly what happens in Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun. The footnotes are not renumbered between chapters but just continue on. I love this and can’t understand why this isn’t standard behavior in the footnoting industry.

Another thing I’ve noticed about footnotes is that often times, they are the most interesting part of the book. It is for this reason that I follow every footnote and try not to miss them. I think of a footnote as the author pausing in his storytelling to lean over to me, hand to the side of his mouth, and whispering something like, “Joe himself told me this story after drinking an entire bottle of vodka2.”

This begs the question: what makes a footnote a footnote? Why is such interesting material relegated to a smaller font, often at the back of the book? Clearly it was worth including in the book, or the editor would have suggested cutting it.

You don’t see footnotes much in fiction. Isaac Asimov made good use of them in Murder at the ABA. I understand David Foster Wallace did something similar in Infinite Jest3.

When footnotes aren’t offering a specific citation, they are often much more informal than the main text. Some of Will Durant’s funniest lines in his Story of Civilization come in the footnotes.

I think I speak for everyone when I say that a footnote that simply reads, “ibid” could save some confusion by changing “ibid” to “ditto.” It would save the trouble of having to lookup what “ibid” means. I can’t always remember that the Latin word ibidem means “in the same place4.”

E-books have made it much easier to navigate footnotes. When reading a paper book, I am forced to use two bookmarks5, one to keep my place in the text, and one to keep my place in the footnotes. But with e-books, I can just tap on the footnote and have a little popup appear so that I can read it.

Footnotes are a crap-shoot when it comes to an audio book. Some readers will read the footnotes, others don’t. I don’t know where the decision is made, but I wish it was more consistent one way or the other.

When footnotes come at the bottom of the page they are called footnotes. When they come at the end of the book, they are called endnotes. They are are one of the few things I can think of that are identical in meaning, but are called different things based on where they are located.

Do “footnotes” even make sense in an e-book, or do we need a new term? E-note, maybe6?


  1. Maybe there is concern about footnotes numbered into the thousands, but I don’t see how that can be a problem from a technical standpoint.
  2. In audiobooks, I often wish the narrator would read the footnotes in a mock-whisper. Instead, they tend to just say, “Footnote,” followed by whatever the footnote is
  3. I seem to recall that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers did this as well.
  4. I had to look this up just now to remind myself what this means
  5. Business cards
  6. Way back in January 2008, I wrote about footnotes. I’m getting repetitive in my middle age.

About Jamie Todd Rubin

Jamie Todd Rubin writes fiction and nonfiction for a variety of publications including Analog, Clarkesworld, The Daily Beast, 99U, Daily Science Fiction, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and several anthologies. He was featured in Lifehacker’s How I Work series. He has been blogging since 2005. By day, he manages software projects and occasionally writes code. He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his wife and three children. Find him on Twitter at @jamietr.

2 thoughts on “Some Notes About Footnotes

  1. I really like how you handle them here on the blog. Click the little number, it scrolls to the footnote itself and then has a handy link back to where I was reading!!

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