I am a great lover of footnotes, and I find a fellow footnoteophile in Alexandra Horowitz, author of the NYT Book Review essay Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote? As you see from the title (the broadsheet equivalent of E-BOOKS: THREAT OR MENACE?), publishers love apocalyptic prophecies, but in fact the idea is silly—footnotes, at least on my Kindle, are prominently linked, and if you’re too lazy to click on a link you’re too lazy to read footnotes in any form. But the essay is full of good stuff; here’s a sample:

But I champion another species of footnote: the wandering footnote. These digressive notes, seeing a sentence that some might consider complete, determine to hijack it with a new set of ever more tangential facts. In the wayward note, the bumps and curves of the author’s mind seem to be laid plain on the paper. I came of intellectual age hearing the author’s sotto voce asides in the philosophy essays I loved. I still recall footnotes that begin, enticingly, “Imagine that . . . ”; “Consider . . . ”; or even, in one of J. L. Austin’s famous thought experiments, “You have a donkey. . . . ” I had the feeling of being taken into confidence by a wise fellow during an erudite lecture, and being told something even more clever and lucid.
In fiction, I was spoiled by Nicholson Baker, whose novel “The Mezzanine” is largely footnotes — including a four-pager that starts: “And escalators are safe. . . . ” (A door has popped up unexpectedly and opened! I’m going in!) Smitten with the small type, I sought out the broader history of the footnote, covered to within a millimeter of its life in Anthony Grafton’s study “The Footnote: A Curious History” and Chuck Zerby’s “Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes” (both are heavily footnoted). Grafton led me to such rollicking footnoters as Edward Gibbon, whose judgmental, conversational and explicatory notes in “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” lighten a weighty read. Such digressions and asides were so enthusiastically used in the 18th century that one satirist wrote a mock dissertation consisting entirely of footnotes. Pierre Bayle’s best seller “Historical and Critical Dictionary,” first published in the 1690s, charmingly used footnotes to point out the errors in the scholarship of others. I’ll take Grafton and Zerby’s word for it that John Hodgson’s mighty “History of Northumberland,” published a century and a half later, is at least worth flipping through for its footnotes on footnotes on footnotes, including one traversing 165 pages.

Thanks, Paul!


  1. My father told me about a paper called “Nihil Annotated”, which consisted entirely of footnotes.

  2. Why take anyone’s word for it? As I pointed out here a few years ago, you can read it yourself online with just a few clicks.
    Or Noten ohne Text.

  3. Yes, it must be the same paper — in English translation, no doubt, though my father could read logician’s German if he had to. But where is this link of which you speak?

  4. Well, here’s an obligatory link to the recent film Footnote, which is about, no less, Talmud research.

  5. mollymooly says

    I couldn’t find the 165-page footnote, or any third-order footnote, in the volumes of Hodgson at the internet archive. This is perhaps the prettiest second-order footnote there.

  6. Scroll down in the earlier Grafton post to the longest footnote ever. It’s Part II, Vol. III, p. 157. Here in Hathi Trust. It should be here in the Internet Archive, but something is wrong with the viewer right now.
    More recently, Paul Fournel’s Banlieue has title page, blurbs, index, and footnotes. But no text. I think it was Englished as Suburbia in one of the OuLiPo anthologies.

  7. I think Horowitz has a point. I always read footnotes, but I often don’t read endnotes, because they’re so often just cross-references. Even when I do read endnotes, it’s often only by skimming them when I get to the end of the book, just to see if there’s anything there besides cross-references. I imagine that most readers don’t even do that much, and I doubt that hyperlinking would change very much. If I happened to know, for a given e-book, that its hyperlinked endnotes had originally been footnotes, then that would make me much more likely to click through, but I imagine that most readers don’t know when that’s the case. (And even that depends on the e-book being a secondary format. It’s starting to happen that some books are coming out as e-books from the get-go. I would guess that such books are less likely to use hyperlinked endnotes with quite the freedom that many printed books use footnotes.)

  8. MMcM: I think we are at cross-purposes. I say that my father told me a paper called “Nihil Annotated” exists, and you say “Why take anyone’s word for it? As I pointed out here a few years ago, you can read it yourself online with just a few clicks.” But I find no such link to something to read online myself, at least not in English.
    But perhaps you were not responding to me at all, but to something in Hat’s original post?

  9. @John Cowan: MMcM is commenting on Horowitz’s statement, quoted by Hat, that she’ll “take Grafton and Zerby’s word for it that John Hodgson’s mighty ‘History of Northumberland,’ published a century and a half later, is at least worth flipping through for its footnotes on footnotes on footnotes, including one traversing 165 pages.” In the linked Language Hat comment-thread, MMcM wrote, “Google Books provides ready and immediate access to what Grafton calls the longest footnote ever” (link in original).

  10. Ah. Thanks, Ran.

  11. Thanks, MMcM. I think it actually begins on page 149. It has its own 3-page section in the Table of Contents, which stretches the definition of “footnote” a bit too far for me.

  12. I always read footnotes, but I often don’t read endnotes, because they’re so often just cross-references.
    In my experience, whether a printed book has endnotes that are not merely cross-references depends on the author, the publisher, the type of book – and of course on the reader himself, who chooses the type of book and/or author, thus determining to a certain extent the other factors. I suspect that publishers’ ideas about “what the modern public expects” are also a factor. These ideas change over time.
    If we leave novels aside, a good portion of the German and French books I read (primarily philosophy and sociology) have fat endnote sections, the notes being mostly cross-references but with extended comments. I always need two bookmarks with these works. As much as I appreciate rambling-afield comments – being something of an adept myself – I find this flipping back and forth rather tiring. For this reason I much prefer footnotes, even when they take up all but the top three lines on several pages. This last is an ugly, lazy practice on the part of the author, but what can you do ?
    Of the three+ books I am currently reading (alternately, depending on mood), two have extensive endnotes. The Reclam ( = paperback) edition of Fontane’s Cécile (1887) has detailed explanatory and cross-referencing endnotes, as do all the other 18-19C novels republished by Reclam (that I have read). The S. Fischer Wissenschaft hardback of Dominik Perler’s Transformationen der Gefühle. Philosophische Emotionstheorien 1270-1670 (2011) has endnotes that are not just cross-references. The stw paperback edition of Martin Hartmann’s Die Praxis des Vertrauens (2011) has no endnotes.
    As to the “+” in “three+”, I am always reading and rereading Luhmann, who provides the reader with massive quantities of fabulous footnotes.
    Then there are the French study editions, for instance the Folio Essais line chez Gallimard that includes Émile: 1140 pages, of which a third consists of notes et variantes and the introduction.
    The True And Only Heaven (Christopher Lasch, 1991, paperback, Norton) has a pleasant improvement on endnotes. The book is divided into 11 major sections, each of which contains 10-20 longish subsections. At the end, Lasch has placed 11 discursively constructed sections with cross-references and commentary – not endnotes but overview-end-commentaries.
    In case anyone is interested: 1270 was the Summa theologica, 1670 the Ethica.

  13. Needing two bookmarks or fingers is bad enough. But what’s worse is when the running titles at the top of the page give only the chapter names, but the numbered endnotes are divided only by chapter number, frequently in Roman numerals.
    Hat, if you run across this sort of thing in your work, please extirpate it! It is maddening.

  14. And then there’s Nabokov’s Pale Fire

  15. And don’t forget the master of the humorous footnote, Will Cuppy. Cf. e.g. The Decline and Fall of Practically Everbybody.

  16. Some ten years ago, now, I wrote a rather long paean on footnotes, and, in particular, investigation of the provenance of a footnote from an edition of the poems of Thomas Gray. When the site it first appeared on was discontinued, I reposted it on one of my blogs. I post a link in case you might be curious: http://gilbertwesleypurdy.blogspot.com/2005/07/elegy-and-internet.html

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