by Henry Farrell on May 12, 2005

From a delightful “short essay”: by David Langford on footnotes in literature.

bq. My favourite helpful annotation in fantasy appears in Lord Dunsany’s story “The Bird of the Difficult Eye”, where “beasts prowling in the blackness gluttered” at the doomed protagonist. Gluttered? A footnote is provided: “See any dictionary, but in vain.”

The essay discusses Alasdair Gray’s use of fictional footnotes, but curiously fails to mention his Lanark, an almost uniformly depressing novel, with a happy ending which is only described (implied?) in the endnotes to a nonexistent final section. It also mentions in passing J.G. Ballard’s short story, “The Index” (which nabakov talks about in the comments to this “post”: on ‘Indexing as Artform’). Of course, Anthony Grafton has written an entire book on the genealogy of the footnote. However, despite frequent displays of Grafton’s personal literary flair ( e.g. “Like the high whine of the dentist’s drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historian’s page reassures: The tedium it inflicts, like the pain inflicted by the drill, is not random but directed.”), the book confines its scope to the academic footnote, almost entirely ignoring its exotic fictional cousins. Finally, Scott McLemee “writes”: about the guilty pleasures of reading reference books for entertainment, and solicits nominations for “favorite reference books” to provide “diversion, edification, or moral uplift .” My personal favourite is Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, available in a thoroughly outdated (and thus vastly more entertaining) edition “here”: “Fowler’s English Usage”: (again available in an antiquated edition) runs a close second, although I understand that its most recent edition has lost much of the vigour and charm that earlier versions had.

Update: I’d always assumed (without reading it) that Fowler’s “The King’s English” was an early and rather different version of “Modern English Usage.” Not so; they’re separate (if related) texts, and the link above is to the former rather than the latter.



Colin Danby 05.12.05 at 1:13 am

Any nominations for scholarly articles with really entertaining notes? For some years I’ve been using Geertz’s Balinese cockfight paper in a class, and one of my assignments is to read just the notes and write about them — but those are unusually rich notes, some containing entire folktales.

Spivak’s _Critique of Postcolonial Reaseon_ has some great long footnotes, some of them mini-essays.

I dimly remember seeing references to a book called _Noten Ohne Text_.

The old British _Dictionary of National Biography_ was a good browsable reference work, tightly written and full of the sort of incident that never makes it into standard histories.


chris y 05.12.05 at 1:59 am

Of course the footnotes to Edward Gibbon: History of the Decline and Fall… give us, inter alia, the story of Prince Henry the Wonderful, possibly the best cognomen ever.


nick 05.12.05 at 3:50 am

As a young and voracious reader with limited access to good books, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was like being taken to a sweet-shop, given a fiver and told to go wild. My old edition of Fowler — thanks, for freeing us from revisionitis — is a lovely thing, though.

Footnotes? Pope’s Dunciad has a wonderful mock-critical apparatus. But these days, sadly, the demands of the MLA style book have largely killed off the art of the footnote in favour of dry, unsatisfying endnotes.


nick 05.12.05 at 3:57 am

It should be noted, though, that Fowler’s The King’s English is a very different book from the Dictionary of Modern English Usage.


rich 05.12.05 at 4:05 am

I came across a “[1] This is the only footnote in this book.” recently.


Simstim 05.12.05 at 4:46 am

I had an idea for a Borgesian short story (which, alas, I do not have the literary skills to attempt to put into practice) where a footnote in an otherwise non-descript book discovered in an otherwise non-descript secondhand bookshop has its own footnote (in yet smaller type). This footnote in turn has another footnote (in yet smaller type) and so on. Each footnote contains some useful piece of information. Science and scholarly endeavour are abandoned in favour of merely developing ever more powerful magnification techniques to uncover yet more information from the recursive footnotes.


gnat 05.12.05 at 4:50 am

Surely Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman represents the apogee of pedal memoranda. The footnotes on the life and works of that most overlooked of savants De Selby overwhelm the story, flooding successive pages and forcingthe narrative to bob slenderly at the top of the page like a raft.

Pray peruse this by no means unrepresentative example:

They make me laugh, but I also think O’Brien perfectly nails the compulsion to not leave anything out, which is often disguised and excused by a tone of leaden whimsy. It takes a rare talent to make readers enjoy footnotes more than the writer.

But what to do with such pearls? Barbara Tuchman admits somewhere to including a whole chapter in The Guns Of August on the Russian staff headquarters, just so she could work in the detail that one officer was so tall his aides had to stick a paper fringe on door lintels to remind him to duck his head.


Paul 05.12.05 at 4:59 am

Jeff Vandermeer’s stories set in the weird and wonderful city of Ambergris rely very heavily on footnotes. In fact, a story which purports to be a history of the place has more of the text in footnotes than in the actual main line of the tale.

Jack Vance, too, is another writer who makes very good use of footnotes detailing his imaginary worlds.


lou 05.12.05 at 5:07 am

Rich – in which book?

I recently read Dolorosa Soror by Florence Dugas, which makes liberal use of fictional endnotes in the style of a third party (who features only briefly in the narrative) editing each chapter.

I found it an incredibly awkward device and felt at times that the author clumsily relied on it to convey background and context that she couldn’t otherwise supply.

But most annoying was the fact that you were required to turn continuously to the end of the chapter in order to fully follow the plot. Why not footnotes, at least? I gave up eventually and stopped reading them.

Hi, btw – first time commenter


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.12.05 at 5:22 am

No discussion of footnotes is complete without a mention of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and the footnotes detailing the bizarre theories of DeSelby.

The same Flann/Myles/ Brian Ó Nuallain apparently used to entertain himself reading Dinneen’s dictionary of the Irish language and sneering at the definitions, a few of which he parodied in his column.


sharon 05.12.05 at 5:46 am

A recent favourite of mine in fiction is Jose Carlos Somoza’s The Athenian Murders.


rob 05.12.05 at 6:37 am

Let’s not forget DFW’s Infinite Jest, which has whole other sub-novels in the footnotes, and some hilarious moments.


Tom T. 05.12.05 at 6:44 am

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest uses lots of footnotes. The best I can say for them is that I generally found the footnotes not to be any more irritating to slog through than the rest of the text. Someone who actually enjoyed that book might have a different view, of course.


Scott McLemee 05.12.05 at 7:43 am

The footnotes to Angus Fletcher’s book on allegory are miniature essays. They take up a large portion of the text. It’s been a long time, but I remember enjoying the effect of seeing how various spokes radiated from the hub of the book, and would like to reread it one of these days.


Hektor Bim 05.12.05 at 7:44 am

Two notes about footnote books:

(1) Anthony Grafton’s book on the footnote managed to be simultaneously boring and irritating. I deeply wish that someone else would write a better book on the footnote than this one.

(2) As for Infinite Jest, I think it can be accurately described as “None ever wished it longer”. Like tom t., I did not enjoy it, and felt that the footnotes were neither better nor worse than the main text.


Maria 05.12.05 at 8:01 am

On the subject of great reference books, and ones that allow you to blag your way through dinner parties and other gatherings (which is surely the point), I highly recommend the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought.

Only this week I looked up ‘iconoclasm’ and the intellectual underpinnings of the arts and crafts movement. I’m considering promoting the book to the bathroom bookshelf.


pyrator 05.12.05 at 8:08 am

Lawrence Norfolk’s ‘In the Shape of a Boar ‘ has footnotes written by the rival to the novel’s central character in the story within a story where the memory of the central character is imperfect.


tad brennan 05.12.05 at 8:26 am

I too find much entertainment in “Brewer’s Dictionary of Misinformation”. It is far from reliable, except as a source of Victorian mistakes.


Conchis 05.12.05 at 8:34 am

My own favourite academic footnote comes from Martin Weitzman’s 1998 QJE article “Recombinant Growth”.

After using a “clutter of algebra” to turn one horrible equation into another slightly less horrible equation, he explains in a footnote, that a “clutter is the universal measure of just enough yuckiness to deter referees and editors from reading proofs of lemmas.”

Are there funnier footnotes around? Sure. But you’ve got to give the guy credit: getting anything even remotely amusing out of an economics article is like drawing blood from a stone.


Henry 05.12.05 at 9:01 am

Dinneen’s is another good one, which I forgot to mention – haven’t had a copy around for years. My Irish language skills have always been mediocre at the very best, but it was fun to leaf through and see how many variant (and sometimes violently opposed) definitions could be given for a single word.

Nick – you’re right. I’d always assumed w/o reading it that _The King’s English_ was a primitive first edition of Fowler’s, and linked to it without thinking. Have now amended the main post to make that clear.


lee scoresby 05.12.05 at 9:17 am

There’s a chapter in Robert Grudin’s Book in which the footnotes rebel against a post-tenure review letter.

I realized how few people actually read footnotes when I started to plant references to fictional works or Simpson’s jokes in my academic papers, but no one ever seemed to notice.


Ginger Yellow 05.12.05 at 10:34 am

I’ll second the praise for the footnotes in The Third Policeman. O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archive also features De Selby, though to less effect.

Swift’s Tale Of A Tub satirises over-footnoting mercilessly.


Sue D'Onym 05.12.05 at 11:20 am

Jack London’s _The Iron Heel_ is a straight dystopia, with the eventual happy ending concealed in the footnotes.

AJP Taylor had a nice line in footnotes ‘It becomes tedious to write ‘except the Italians’ continuously – the reader must take it as present from this point on.’ Or something like that.

At certain points in Jack Vance’s work, the footnotes have outshone the main text. I’m a particular fan of the reactionary sociologist Unspiek, Baron Bodissey, author of _Life_.


alex 05.12.05 at 11:31 am

My particular favorite reference work is the Encyclopedia of Abberations, which is a precursor of the DSM. Delightful things such as “Aphronesia: the complete lack of common sense.” Contains some horrifying bits too, ascribing autism to deficient mothering, for example…

When discussing footnotes, I must mention Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, which contains a great many, all rewarding.


slolernr 05.12.05 at 11:42 am

Favorite footnote:

Regarding transcription of Lyndon Johnson in the White House, the text reads, “The few transcripts compiled by Johnson’s secretaries proved unrealiable: one had Johnson refer to a ‘pack them bastards’ waiting outside his office; it turned out to be the Pakistani ambassador.” The footnote remarks that in fairness, “Packs of bastards were more likely to appear in Johnson’s conversation than Pakistani ambassadors.” Bruce Schulman wrote the article.

Favorite reference work to browse: B. H. Mitchell, International Historical Statistics. Yep, well, you’ve never experienced real reference-work degradation until you find yourself plowing aimlessly through columns of numbers.


rich 05.12.05 at 11:46 am

Lou – the “only footnote” footnote was in Cogwheels of the Mind by Anthony Edwards.


barney 05.12.05 at 12:47 pm

If I might try to offer a notably puerile footnote from the annals of science, an article from the Journal of the American Chemical Society (Waymouth, et al. “Trinuclear Zr2,Al mu-ketene Complexes Containing Bridging Ligands. Implications for Transmetallation Reactions and CO Reduction Chemistry,” J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1986, 108, 1427), which describes the use of a metal complex to perturb a methyl group (-CH3) away from its normal pyramidal configuration to a planar arrangement of the constituent atoms by the action of two metal atoms on the central carbon, contains as footnote #46 “Waymouth, R. M.; Pierre, L.; Grubbs, R. H. unpublished results.” The first and third authors in this citation are real people, the second, in reference to the fact that the methyl group in the paper is “getting it from both ends,” pays tribute to that old joke about the three French-Canadian brothers (?), specifically the lucky one named Pierre.

Juvenile (as are many organometallic chemists), but pleasingly arcane.


Jasper Milvain 05.12.05 at 2:37 pm

To be pointlessly picky, the title of this post may also have King’s English/Modern English Usage issues. Marginalia is a whole subject of its own, distinct from printed footnotes (insert references to Coleridge or God’s Proofreader to taste) but Flann O’Brien is still the daddy: note the fantastic thing collected in The Best of Myles about a book-reading service, which breaks spines, annotates and throws in lost letters without the purchaser having ever to learn anything.


Henry 05.12.05 at 3:02 pm

Jasper – the title of the post is intended less to refer to the subject matter, than to the fact that I’m not really writing anything original in this post; merely scribbling on the margins of what Langford, Grafton and McLemee have already written. Which is what bloggers do, I suppose.

Am of course a fan of Flann (as I think are most other Timberites, including the non-Irish ones). My grandmother was once proposed to by Niall Montgomery, who used to write the Cruiskeen Lawn columns on those unfortunately frequent occasions when Mr. O’Nolan was indisposed.


Jasper Milvain 05.12.05 at 3:05 pm

Sorry (I did say I was being pointlessly picky).


Jim Harrison 05.12.05 at 3:09 pm

Ordinary footnotes are a form of hypertext, though a rather primitive version compared to the printed Talmud or even Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary.


Stephen Frug 05.12.05 at 6:04 pm

A good list of fictional works using footnotes (and another of ones using indexes) can be found here:

May I also recomend Kevin Jackson’s charming book Invisible Forms: a guide to literary curiosities, which includes a chapter on footnotes. And (slightly off-topic) Hazel K. Bell’s Indexers and Indexes in Fact and Fiction — which is really far more charming than one might think from the title.


Stephen Frug 05.12.05 at 6:07 pm

— Oops, I just noticed that Henry’s earlier post (which he links to) is actually about the Hazel Bell book. Well, let me heartily second his recommendation of Bell, then — and recommend Jackson to anyone who liked the Bell book.


Mr Ripley 05.13.05 at 1:55 am



Martin 05.13.05 at 7:10 am

Nice to see VanderMeer mentioned. Here’s a footnote loaded review of City Of Saints And Madmen:


bunny 05.13.05 at 9:09 am

No mention of the Dictionary of the Khazars in a post mixing reference works and fiction? And don’t forget Lem’s book of introductions to books from the future, Imaginary Magnitude.


Jake 05.13.05 at 11:55 am

A work with both its proponents and detractors here, but which I believe had some rather amusing footnotes, was Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries” article.

I too love Jack Vance’s use of footnotes. I seem to recall one in which a famous tale-teller is brought low by his claim of the uniqueness of a certain planet owing to the sun’s rising in the west there.


Slayton I. Mustgo 05.14.05 at 3:04 pm

Finally (because this thread is dead, no?) “On the Shoulders of Giants”, an inquiry into the source of this phrase used by (and often wrongly attributed to) Newton. He tracks the phrase to Burton, who gives the attribution in an abbreviated footnote (something like “Op. cit. App.”) and the fun begins…

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