In Praise of…Footnotes

I can’t remember when I first read Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman*, but I can remember that one of the things that made me fall deeply in love with the book was the comedic use of footnotes. I didn’t know such a thing was possible. Before Good Omens, my only encounters with footnotes were brief glimpses of academic texts with tiny print at the bottom of the page that I treated as entirely optional**. Later on, I discovered the joys of the footnoter phone in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series and in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. I even found a book written entirely in footnotes that I absolutely adored: Ibid, by Mark Dunn.

I know that it can get irritating to have to constantly move your eyes up and down the page and remember where you were. It’s even worse on an ereader***. You have to hold two lines of text in your head to make sense of them. And, of course, there are times when what’s in the footnote doesn’t really add anything and/or goes on so long that you completely lose track of what you were reading.

But in spite of all of this, I love footnotes. I have to work hard not to read them before the main text. So, what is it about footnotes that I enjoy so much? I think Good Omens and my realization that footnotes could be funny had a lot to do with it. I love the way that a well-chosen footnote can puncture pomposity or add a hilarious aside to the main text. My love of metafiction also plays a role. Unlike other readers, who like to sink into a book to escape**** or who just don’t like being reminded that we are staring at dead, pulped trees with ink scribbles all over them, I revel in books with layers that make me think about how a story is constructed and what the narrative is trying to achieve*****. I love getting more than one story between a given set of book covers.

Endnotes, however, and this is my considered opinion, just suck. Who can be bothered to flip to the end of the book to get that extra, juicy bit of text?

Readers, what are your thoughts about footnotes and endnotes? Do you like them in fiction? Should they only be used in nonfiction and then only judiciously?

This footnote, from Nicolas Berdyaev’s The Divine and the Human, may be the greatest academic footnote ever written.

* Or, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
** Which means I didn’t read it.
*** Oh god, it’s awful. Get on this, publishers!
**** I do this sometimes, too, but not as much as I used to before I graduated with a degree in English literature. It is hard to turn off the analysis, even 10 years later.
***** Similar to my love of unreliable narrators.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of…Footnotes

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