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Making Headway With Footnotes

Have I ever told you that I like to browse academic texts well before I consider reading them? If, on browsing, I see little numbers scattered about the text, I will put the book back and try another book on the same subject but by a different author.

The only books with footnotes that I have ever been able to stand are Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Maybe it’s because I’m not keen on mathematics, but something about small numbers in the middle or end of sentences really puts me off. I do know that there is an element of the numbers causing you to break off and consider whether you should check the reference or not.

This hate of footnotes, because it really is quite extreme in me, has lead me to read only books by people who include references solely in the acknowledgements (my reason for reading Alison Weir’s work so much) and to actively seek out editions of classic literature also without the offensive numbers (I finally found the Vintage versions of classics). This latter phenomenon really gets to me – I don’t see why we need footnotes in our classics. Doing it effectively says that they are completely separate to contemporary literature, and it is this idea that is partly the reason why children today find the prospect of reading them so dull – I say that from personal experience as a 15 year old with classmates feeling the same. If reading an ancient translated text where the meaning is difficult to illustrate in English, footnotes make sense, but on my quest to find a good copy of Jane Austen’s work I came across footnotes for words like “fireplace” and “chair” where the objective of the footnote was to tell the reader what exact types of fireplaces and chairs these were likely to be. Not only is this unnecessary, but when the word is “likely” it shows that this is just a guess by the editor. And if Austen had been thinking of a particular type of item, wouldn’t she have mentioned it herself?

It has taken university study for me to understand why footnotes in academic texts are useful, even if I will never agree with notes in classic literature. In my desire to read Antonia Fraser’s Marie Antoinette I had to way up said desire against my hate of footnotes and for once the desire won – I consciously bought a book with footnotes in it. Granted the notes are at the end of the book, but the numbers are still floating around the main pages.

I have discovered that if my desire for the knowledge in a book is great enough then I am likely to miss many of the numbers. Despite a few pauses for thought on Fraser’s reliability, I have found this to be the case.

So I will give in to the possibilities of there being footnotes in my books, and realise that if I want to read the version of Frances Burney’s Cecilia that I like the look of, I’m going to have to let go of my hate then too, even if it is a classic. I will never be admirer of footnotes, but I will try to be indifferent.

What do you think of footnotes?


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