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Death of the footnote (rant)

The footnote is all but extinct in books today. When I do come across a footnote I greet it like an old friend but it happens ever more rarely.

I know there are economic reasons for this regrettable demise. Footnotes are costly to include. What we get instead is notes at the end of the book, with numbered references in the main text. Well, all right, I suppose it can’t be helped. But, if we must have the damned things, let's at least have them done properly.

In most cases, even if you want to look up a footnote as you read, it's made as difficult as possible. You go to the back and find that each chapter has its own set of notes. The chapters are identified by name and you don't remember the name of the chapter you are reading, and of course it is not repeated at the top of every page so you have to keep fingers in two places at once while you go back to the beginning of the chapter to find what it is called.

Perhaps you decide to leave reading the notes until you finish the book. Now you encounter the same problem, in an even worse form. You find an interesting note and want to know where it is referred to in the main text. So first you must discover which chapter you are reading the note for, and then go back to the main text and locate the relevant chapter there. Next you must find the actual reference in that chapter, and almost certainly the numbers will be set in a minute font which is almost illegible without a magnifying glass. It may take you a quarter of an hour to track the thing down.

All this is quite unnecessary. A minority of publishers has the courtesy to readers of making the business of finding notes intuitive instead of a treasure hunt. They repeat the names of the chapters at the top of the page, they make the reference numbers of reasonable size, and above all the notes at the back indicate the range of text pages they relate to at the top of the page. For example, you see a reference to note 34 on page 49; you can therefore find it easily by going to the notes for, e.g., pages 48-50. Conversely, if you are reading the notes after finishing the book, you can easily find the relevant place in the main text because you know which page range contains it.

If some publishers can follow this civilized way of doing things, why don't they all?


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