footnotes

 

 

 

I have been a reader all my life and take great pleasure in it.

I am not an academic, yet I like to challenge myself by reading books on all sorts of topics. As well as trying to read the classics, I don’t shy away from reading scholarly tomes.

For example, being a lover of Walt Whitman, and always intending to read more of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have begun reading a book by a well known English professor which discusses the influence the two had on one another.

I desire to read books in their traditional printed form, not on line. I love having the book in my hands and turning the pages. I appreciate the physical appearance of books and enjoy owing them. I tend to prefer hardbacks over paperbacks. This is especially true of hefty volumes. I find the pages easier to turn.

I have a pet peeve. It involves footnotes. Sometimes, they are boring and not essential from the reader’s point of view. But, often – usually — they are worth at least checking, and quite often, indeed, they contain valuable information. In the case of the work of some scholars, the footnotes can often be as informative as the main body of the text itself. This is true, for example, of the works of the Samuel Johnson scholar Thomas M. Curley, whose works should be better known (but never will be).

So, I ask, why are footnotes buried at the back of the book? Why do publishing practices require or mandate this?

I write scholarly essays for a separate web site of mine which is devoted to the writer Theodore Dreiser. I compose the essays using Microsoft Word. I try to document my findings using footnotes, to make what I have discovered through research verifiable and to give my articles credibility among scholars. Microsoft Word permits one to insert a footnote in a document wherever one desires. The footnote is inserted at the bottom of the page automatically, and the layout is adjusted automatically to allow space at the bottom of the page for the footnotes. One also has the option of creating an endnote, if so desired, in which case the citations appear sequentially at the end of the main body of the document.

I recall writing term papers as a college student in the 1960’s. I used a manual portable typewriter, a Royal typewriter with a Harvard College sticker on it that my older brother had bequeathed to me. Being a procrastinator, it seemed that I was always pulling “all nighters” to write the paper the night before it was due. I would have books spread out before me from which I would be cadging information for footnotes. (I almost always — by the way — composed my papers at the typewriter in a single draft, with no revisions.)

Allowing for footnotes in those days was a slight problem. One had to anticipate how many footnotes there would be at the bottom of the page, then make a pencil mark about a half an inch from the bottom of the page to allow space for each footnote. When one got to the pencil mark, one stopped typing the main text and typed in the footnote.

Can someone explain to me, if the technology is available to any student writing a term paper on his or her computer using standard word processing software — the technology to insert footnotes at the BOTTOM of EACH page, with the word processing program automatically making adjustments to allow enough space — why can’t publishing firms place footnotes at the bottom of each page instead of at the end of the book? It would save so much vexing flipping back and forth to find and read the citation. In the old days, footnotes were always at the bottom of each page in printed books. Why, in heaven’s name, do publishers insist on the supposedly “modern” way of doing it?

A friend of mine from the past who was a homegrown philosopher used to say to me, “Science marches backwards.” So do many other areas of modern life, big and small.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

      March 2017

 

 

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Addendum: I had a discussion the other day about the subject of this post — namely, footnotes — with someone whose opinions I respect. He suggested to me that the reason that footnotes get buried in, relegated to, the back of the book is because publishers and authors fear that most people don’t care to read them and that, if they were placed at the bottom of the page to which they refer, many readers would find them to be a distraction.

This is undoubtedly true. True as an observation about publishing practices, that is. But, I would say, flat out wrong.

A similar point was made to me once by an eminent scholar whom I became acquainted with when I was employed at Columbia University. His books were a pleasure to read on account both of the clarity of expression and the prodigious original research that underlay them. The footnotes were copious and lengthy and demonstrated considerable industry and erudition.

In discussing a recently published book of his with the author, whom I told that I admired it, his footnotes came up. He told me he had placed them at the end because, that way, people who didn’t want to read them could ignore them.

In retrospect, I thoroughly disagree with my acquaintance’s position on this. If the reader isn’t interested, he or she can go on to the next page and ignore the footnotes.

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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