the candler blog

Footnotes

Design, Writing

Ann Beattie on The Paris Review blog:

Sure, some footnotes merely offer information, telling us that a town is in the northwest of Ireland (ho-hum; bring on the GPS). But others stun with information as sharp as a bee sting: you find out the people whose romantic wedding you’ve just read about divorced; that everything you just read was denied by authorities; that someone was one of nine children!

I’m a fan of using footnotes here on the candler blog. It’s difficult, sometimes, to think in terms of footnotes while writing. What, for example, is the difference between a footnote and a parenthetical? My writing is often littered with parenthesis that either get deleted or turned into footnotes later.

I’d add to Beattie’s list of books with interesting footnotes Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.1 Diaz interjects his own voice into the narrative, offering bits of Dominican history in massive, freewheeling footnotes. Taking it to the next meta level, he recently even annotated one of these footnotes at Poetry Genius, offering inline reference to the cultural and pop allusions sprinkled throughout. It may be maddening to read an entire book with this many notes upon notes, but I think as ebook technology advances2 we could see more and more of this out in the world.

Speaking of maddening footnotes, I can’t believe Beattie doesn’t give at least an honorable mention to Infinite Jest3 which I’m currently reading at a snail’s pace. Some notes are a dozen pages long. Initially I thought the hyperlinking of footnotes would make it easier to read in ebook form than in paperback, but now I’m not so sure. While the hulking mass of the David Foster Wallace’s book is physically daunting, the ability to flip back and forth, as intended, would seem easier than navigating electronically, linearly.4

For better or worse, a side effect of my reading Infinite Jest will likely be (and as you can see, most definitely is) a preponderance of footnoting on this site. I suppose I’m in the same boat as Ann Beattie in the above linked piece, “mentally footnoting” events as they occur.5

  1. Affiliate link. Also: welcome to my footnotes.

  2. Footnoting in ebooks is still a surprisingly stodgy affair. Generally you’ll see a numbered superscript hyperlink that will take you to the note, which most often lives in the back of the ebook. This is a decent analogue for most books, but Oscar Wao is designed specifically to keep the reader from leaving the current page of the book.

    Probably the best footnoting I’ve seen on iOS so far is in Instapaper and The Magazine, both of which bring up the footnote in a popover. I’d love to see a similar system make its way into iBooks, or at least allow publishers to offer an alternative to putting notes at the end of the book.

  3. See note 1.

  4. Wallace, I imagine, would prefer that it be read on paper, though the novel does prefigure most modern technology rather accurately. The “point” seems to be to break up the linearity of the novel, a function that then gets imposed on the reader in ebook form. (This book will likely break my reading streak.)

  5. I can’t end this without including my favorite footnoting bit, from Woody Allen’s 2002 appearance at the Academy Awards:

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