The end for endnotes?

by John Quiggin on November 27, 2006

I’ve been reading Karen Cerulo’s Never saw it coming and while it’s generally pretty good, it contains what I assumed was a howler of a mistake, but turns out to be a gross misjudgement. Cerulo argues that the generally optimistic view taken by Americans does not extend to deviant groups, and uses as an example, the Heaven’s Gate cult which, as she states believed that they would be removed from the Earth by a spaceship following the comet Hale-Bopp, their true home’. As she says, most reporting of the group treated it as the epitome of the lunatic fringe. I assumed that Cerulo was somehow unaware of the fact that all the members of the group had committed suicide in an attempt to ensure that the spaceship didn’t miss them. I looked at the endnotes to check the dates on some of the cited media reports and discovered a note reading

144. Henry 1997, 4. Readers may recall in order to hasten their arrival in heaven, all thirty-nine members of the group engaged in a mass suicide

which to my mind justifies the lunatic fringe description. In any case, surely this point was important enough to include in the main text, or a footnote on the same page.

While I’m on this subject, is there any excuse for persevering with endnotes in books*? They’re just about useless, (those that don’t give something worse than useless like “ibid” or “loc cit”). If the material is of too little interest to be included in the main text or in footnotes, and can’t be omitted altogether for reasons of academic nicety, couldn’t it be placed in a supporting website?

* Footnote/endnote: A bit more discussion of this at Andrew Norton’s blog (thanks to Damien Eldridge for locating this for me)

{ 1 trackback }

OBTW § Unqualified Offerings
11.27.06 at 8:40 am



bi 11.27.06 at 1:53 am

Perhaps Cerulo decided that putting that little factoid in the main text would disrupt its argument flow or something.


Ron George 11.27.06 at 2:01 am

Note that William Safire comments similarly in the New York Times Magazine “On Language” column today.


Jon 11.27.06 at 3:04 am

I’m not sure what your point is: that in fact the cult was optimistic, rather than pessimistic?

Or that they were on the “lunatic fringe,” but not for the reasons ascribed at the time?


bi 11.27.06 at 3:23 am

I guess she was referring to other people’s view of the cult. The “pessimistic” view is that the cult members were insane, while the “optimistic” view is that they might be right.


notjonathon 11.27.06 at 3:54 am

When end notes convey interesting information that is only peripherally relevant to the argument in the main text, or cite figures, then I find them interesting. They can also be used to refer to one’s own arguments in another paper that support or parallel the arguments being made.
All in all, I prefer the citations to be made in the text, with end notes and footnotes reserved for the above kinds of information.
Nevertheless, Heaven’s Gate certainly belongs in the end notes. Sorry.


Ben 11.27.06 at 5:00 am

As an (aspiring) academic, I certainly prefer footnotes, rather than having to keep flicking to the back of the book for something that may or may not be interesting or relevant.

I guess it’s down to the publishers though. I suppose endnotes are easily ignored, whereas footnotes may put off any potential ‘popular audience’ the book may have had.


Daniel 11.27.06 at 6:18 am

The only good thing to be said for endnotes is that at least you can find the bloody things because they are in a predictable place at the back end of the book. Publishers and authors who really hate their readers will place them at the end of each chapter, collected together. I have no idea who might find this helpful, apart from teaching professors who are photocopying a chapter to distribute to their students, which is not behaviour that I would have thought the copyright holders would want to facilitate.


Alex 11.27.06 at 6:43 am

Ibid is the most annoying thing you’ll ever find in a book.


Richard J 11.27.06 at 6:50 am

Footnotes offer an ideal opportunity for snarkiness however, as exemplified by Gibbon, where half of the joy in reading it, and why people should really make the time to read an unabridged edition, comes in the footnotes.


abb1 11.27.06 at 7:19 am

Personally, I usually skip the book, go directly to the endnotes and read them, trying to figure out what this is all about. If I can’t figure it out, I know the book is crap. If I can, there is already no reason to read it. Saves time.


Bobcat 11.27.06 at 9:14 am

Jeez. I don’t think “ibid” is that big a deal. I mean, once I realize there are endnotes in the first place, I look to see how many of them are citations, and how many of them contain relevant information. Then, I write down the numbers of the ones that contain relevant information. Then, whenever I see an endnote, I consult that piece of paper. Then, I kill myself and my family.


Richard 11.27.06 at 9:38 am

God, I hate endnotes; why punish an interested reader by sending them scurrying to the back of the book every few sentences? I love footnotes, however, for the same reason as Richard J, and because I grew up with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The one really elegant solution I’ve seen to this is clearly-delineated sidebars. They allow a citation to be set next to its place in the argument (which is nicely, visually clear), it’s easy for document reader software to exclude them if necessary, and in the case of notes that contain new information (as opposed to citations), I think they encourage the reader to actually read them (presumably the purpose of writing them in the first place).


theophylact 11.27.06 at 9:41 am

Ever read “A Garland of Ibids for Van Wyck Brooks”, by Frank Sullivan?


Rich B. 11.27.06 at 10:06 am

15 posts and this is the first mention of Infinite Jest?


Matt 11.27.06 at 10:13 am

I’d long assumed that the reason for endnotes was that it was easier for formatting when people used typewriters and hand-set type and the like. But, now that computers take care of all that I don’t see why anyone uses endnotes. The exception might be in legal writing, where the notes are often nearly as long, and sometimes longer, than the substance and yet almost never have substance themselves. (I wish that practice would end, but this doesn’t seem likely.)


Matt Weiner 11.27.06 at 10:44 am

At least one of David Wiggins’s books has an interesting footnote/endnote compromise; most of the notes are footnotes, but when he has one that’s too long to fit comfortably at the bottom of the page he footnotes “see longer note 22,” and the text of longer note 22 is found at the end of the essay.


Matt Kuzma 11.27.06 at 11:03 am

I think you just want books to be hypertext.


Kelly 11.27.06 at 11:22 am

If the material is of too little interest to be included in the main text or in footnotes, and can’t be omitted altogether for reasons of academic nicety, couldn’t it be placed in a supporting website?
Blah, this is an awful idea. Some of us still do our reading and research away from the computer, and would like to keep it that way! An inability to access notes about the writing while I was doing my research will certainly ensure I not use the book whatever I was doing.

(Now, the argument against end v foot notes is a complete other, and interesting one – put me down as preferring Wiggins’s footnote with longer endnote for snarkiness/commentary method.)


Robert Stacy McCain 11.27.06 at 11:55 am

Have you ever written a book, marketed to a general readership, that was based heavily on research? The end-note format is simply the best way to attribute the material, without detracting from the narrative flow.

I recently co-authored a book, Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party, that had more than 600 end-notes. To have cited the sources at the bottom of each page — “footnotes,” a technical distinction that Al Franken insisted on hammering Ann Coulter about — would have been extremely cumbersome and distracting, especially on those occasions when there were 6 notes on one page, or when a note contained explanatory material.

Some uses of endnoting are better than others, but a bad example does not indict the whole concept of endnotes. Secondary material must be sourced and attributed somehow, and the endnote format has proven popular.


Anderson 11.27.06 at 12:10 pm

Infinite Jest *had* to use endnotes. How many pages is the story of S. Johnson’s fate?

I’ve always liked Derek Parfit’s preface to the endnotes in Reasons and Persons: “These notes should be read, if at all, later.”


Kevin T. Keith 11.27.06 at 1:58 pm

I assume that in most serious books there is a place for supporting material outside the main text. The question, then, is where, exactly, that place is.

The value of endnotes is that they allow the author to maintain scholarly rigor and sourcing standards without distracting the lay reader with extraneous material on the page or at the end of the chapter. (I suspect that many general readers will simply not purchase a book with visible notes among the text.) It makes it possible to publish serious non-fiction to the general audience but also maintain standards required in the scholarly community. And I think this is an excellent result. The same goes for the increasing practice of locating endnotes by reference to the text, without putting superscript note numbers in the text itself. (I.e., each note is preceded by page numbers and/or quotations from the text, so the reader can easily locate the notes for a particular point that catches their attention in the text, or the text for a point that they read in the notes – but uninterested readers can simply read straight through without any distractions.)

Making the notes essentially invisible to the uninterested reader, while still including them for scholars and others interested, is a great compromise. Given the crap-awful level of public discourse on serious subjects these days, anything that upholds standards of factuality while addressing the general public should be applauded.


stuart 11.27.06 at 2:51 pm

I would agree with one of the points above, anything substantive (longer than a paragraph, as a guide) might make sense as an end note, anything short should be a footnote if it is going to be included. I have been trying to read a book (fiction) of which half of the details of the story that links everything together is included in the equivalent of end notes, and there is often several per page, which means to read the book completely you have to keep flipping back and forth. Very annoying as you can imagine, despite the story being okay it has stopped me reading it.


Joel Turnipseed 11.27.06 at 2:57 pm

I second abb1’s view: with books that contain them (including DFW’s doorstopper), I almost always read two things first: the endnotes and the bibliography. If they captivate, then I’ll read the book.

A readerly argument for footnotes (suggested by Parfit’s remark on R&P) is that most books really worth reading aren’t really “read” until you’ve gone through multiple passes (a shorter version of this phenomenon is–quite movingly–found in Andre Dubus’ essay, ‘A Hemingway Story’). As such, I like to first orient myself to the author’s overall mental world by checking out endnotes/bibliography, then do a quick read that ignores footnotes/endnotes to get a sense of where the author is going within that world, and only on a kind of third reading do I get to the author’s equivocations/elaborations in the endnotes. I prefer endnotes over footnotes for precisely the reason that it’s easier to avoid getting tripped up early over some point whose charitable interpretation/role in overall argument may not yet be available to me.


Ralph Hitchens 11.27.06 at 3:41 pm

Right on re. endnotes. I just finished Tom Holland’s _Persian Fire_, a fine popular history of the 5th century BCE war, with lots of interesting source comment relegated to the endnotes, forcing me to flip back & forth & use two bookmarks.


maha 11.27.06 at 4:32 pm

I used to love FOOTnotes and am always aggravated up the wazoo when publishers put substantive comments into ENDnotes instead of FOOTnotes.

Conventional wisdom in publishing is that footnotes scare away readers, but I say that readers who are afraid of FOOTnotes are not about to look something up in an ENDnote, so as a rule of thumb if the author wants something read it had better be in the text (in parentheses, perhaps).

Footnotes were phased out when publishers got away from galley proofs that were pasted up in pages after first proofreading. If you page the book in Quark and make changes that cause text to shift from one page to another, it messes up the footnotes. A book with a lot of notes may have to be repaged after every proofreading. Hence, endnotes.

I don’t mind endnotes that are citing sources of information. (You want authors to not cite sources of information?) But I agree that comments should either be in the text or in FOOTnotes.


Matt Weiner 11.27.06 at 5:59 pm

Stuart, out of curiosity, which book? Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum does something like that but I think it’s deliberate and effective. And the endnotes in Alasdair Gray’s History Maker contain the second half of the plot; it’s as well to read them straight through after reading the text.

(There’s an essay on footnotes in fiction that mentions this, which I found somehow the other day by searching CT for references to Gray, but HM itself doesn’t seem to be mentioned on this blog. — And while we’re mentioning footnotes in fiction, what about The Makepeace Experiment by Abram Tertz, in which the narrator gets into an argument with the footnotes and — well, that would be a spoiler!)

Kevin Keith, excellent point re: popular consumption.


tom bach 11.27.06 at 11:15 pm

For an invesigation of footnotes both informative and funny as all get out Anthony Grafton “The Footnote from De Thou to Ranke” in _History and Theory_ 33/4 53-76.

“Like the toilet,” Grafton argues, “the footnote enables one to deal with ugly tasks in private; like the toilet it is tucked genteely away – often, in recent years, not even at the bottom of the page but at the end of the book. Out of sight, and even out of mind, seems exactly where so banal a device belongs.”

He concludes:

“In a brilliant passage, Gibbon dissects the five volumes of the Origines Guelficae: ‘The hands of several workmen are apparent; the bold and original spirt of Leibnitz, the crude erudition and hasty conjectures of Eccard, the useful annotations of Gruber, and the crtical disquisitions of Scheid.’ [footnote 54] One could say much the same – if one could write such sentences – of the footnote. A palimpsest, it reveal on examination reserach techniques framed in the Renaissance, critical rules first stated during the Scientific Revolution, the irony of Gibbon, and the empathy of Ranke.”

I loves me a footnote and hates me an endnote, for reasons articulated by others.


aa 11.27.06 at 11:21 pm

The rule of thumb is that each footnote reduces the book’s sales by half; hence, endnotes. Can there be any excuse for wandering down every interesting path that presents itself in the body of the text when these mollis aer137 bits can all be neatly collected in the endnotes for the judicious reader to nibble on at leisure, without being forced to glance wistfully or desperately back, as the case may be, at the nearly forgotten page on which the opening line of the paragraph can be found, while the topic under discussion smalls in the distance (like, for Proust’s young narrator, the water lilies) and one is swept away by a stream of impertinent though noteworthy points of interest, when the simple remedy of the End Note lies so close to hand138? Many and many a time have I prowled the endnote prairie accompanied only by my dry skepticism, looking for a tuft of solid information on which to nourish my growing doubts, and devoured the same with a muttered “Aha!”, in one of the many tones to which that exclamation, even when muttered, lends itself. There’s gold in them thar hills; just don’t break a tooth.

137. i.e., tender but airy (also, a conventional pseudo-etymology for mulier, cf. Shakespeare, Sonnet 1, l. 4, et passim)

138. No. (Thot not.)


John Quiggin 11.28.06 at 12:30 am

“Making the notes essentially invisible to the uninterested reader, while still including them for scholars and others interested, is a great compromise.”

A website does this nicely. And these days, it seems hard to imagine a location where you have access to the source material being cited, but no access to a computer.

As regards substantive notes, the standard conventions of footnotes (small text at the bottom of the page) make it clear to uninterested readers that this is material that can be skipped, while making it easy for interested readers to see them in context.


Matt Weiner 11.28.06 at 12:46 am

And these days, it seems hard to imagine a location where you have access to the source material being cited, but no access to a computer.

Suppose the source material is a book. You might have both the book you’re reading and the book that’s used as source material with you.

Anyway, the endnotes aren’t totally useless even if you can’t look up the source material RIGHT THEN. By looking at the endnotes you can see that the material is sourced to something, and you may be able to see how reliable/tendentious the source is (is it “Coulter, A.”?)

And having to switch back and forth between the book and the supporting website sounds about a million billion times worse than having to flip back and forth between the main text and the end of the book.


Matt Weiner 11.28.06 at 12:48 am

For that matter, look at your own example. You looked at the endnotes to check the dates on the cited media reports. You didn’t need to go to the source material for this to be worthwhile; the endnotes contained the material you needed.


Kelly 11.28.06 at 12:54 am

And these days, it seems hard to imagine a location where you have access to the source material being cited, but no access to a computer.
Let me introduce you to the coffee shop and the bar where I do most of my reading/writing,…


Richard J 11.28.06 at 4:47 am

I agree with Matt. A banal comment, I full well know, but a separate website sounds like a needlessly cumbersome approach.


Francis 11.28.06 at 6:38 am

The rule of thumb is that each footnote reduces the book’s sales by half

Tell that to Terry Pratchett…

If there’s more than a page or so in the text, you aren’t looking at a note anyway – you’re looking at an appendix.


C.L. Ball 11.28.06 at 11:15 am

This may be a corollary to #26, but footnotes take up more space than endnotes do. In other words, the same book is longer if it has footnotes rather than endnotes. You can see this yourself in a large file in MS Word. Look at the page-length in footnotes, then have Word convert the footnotes to endnotes. The number of pages will shrink. A shorter book is cheaper to print for academic presses.


raj 11.28.06 at 9:57 pm

Footnotes and endnotes serve different purposes. Footnotes should supplement the text from which they are referenced, whereas endnotes should indicate sources for the text. That’s pretty much it.

If a footnote is sufficiently lengthy or deemed sufficiently important to the subject matter of the text, the author should consider incorporating the footnote into the text.

Comments on this entry are closed.