Once more, with footnotes!
In the post, she quoted a college professor who was once shocked that she read footnotes. “No one reads footnotes!” the professor claimed4.
The professor could not be more wrong6.Lots of people read footnotes. I have been doing a running gag on various blogs over the years where I would do posts several days in a row, each one with more footnotes than the day before, culminating in a blog post which consisted of a single word with a whole bunch of footnotes78. My footnotes often have footnotes of their own9. And sometimes the footnote of a footnote has more footnotes10. My point is that whenever I have done this, I get several favorable comments, often from people I didn’t know were reading my blog. And not just generic comments, but comments that clearly indicate the person tried to follow all the nesting structure.
Terry Pratchett published a whole book riddled with footnotes, in part because he had been known to throw footnotes in some of his fantasy novels, the footnotes frequently being the location of the funniest jokes in the book. In the early portion of my college career, I and some friends were involved in creating a bunch of faux adventure books where footnotes abounded11. We took delight in constructing footnotes that took up more of the page than the story text. We took even more delight in constructing footnotes that ran on for several pages. We had footnotes that had their own footnotes occasionally, though this was slightly less common than what I do now, because we were doing all of this on typewriters15—not with word processors.
The award-winning fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke makes good use of footnotes throughout, to give another example.
Footnotes are great. They are fun to construct19, fun to read, and serve a valuable role of allowing the author to digress in a way that gives the reader a bit more control over when they follow the writer down a rabbit hole20.
1. This was my fault, because my first contribution to the conversation that was already going on between three of my friends was simply to exclaim, “Marginalia!”2
2. marginalia noun, plural: marginal or incidental notes; written or printed in the margin of a page.
3. And I did love it!
4. I’ve had people just as emphatically insist that no one reads, period5!
5. When I was preparing to go away to university, an uncle and a cousin were recruited by my grandmother to help me move all the stuff I had packed up that needed to go into storage in her garage that I couldn’t take with me. About the fourth box of books one of my uncles picked up he asked, “You haven’t actually read all of these, have you?” And was shocked when I told him that 1) yes, most of them more than once and, 2) I had sold about of third of my collection to a couple of used bookstores recently.
6. All right, I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole, here. There are many things the professor could say that would be every more incorrect than this, but you get my point.
7. When I did this on LiveJournal, I put all the notes below a cut-tag, so at first glance it looked like a very short post with a bunch of small numbers in and ever-decreasing line of superscripts.
8. I am too easily amused, I know.
9. Because they often need elaborations of their own.
10. cf note #9.
11. Because sometimes just the fact that someone decided to put a footnote on some ridiculous parody of action-adventure dialog is funny before you even read the footnote12.
12. The problem with that particular technique is, that you have to make sure that whatever joke or other pay-off you deliver in said footnote is more entertaining and/or funnier than the mere existence of a footnote where no one13 would expect it.
13. At least, no sane person14.
14. But we were the sort of college students who were assembling our own hard copy books, sharing them among ourselves, and writing sequels, collaborating on sequels, et cetera. Clearly we were not entirely sane.
15. Half of my work was done on an IBM Selectric16 electric typewriter at the school, and the other half on the 1952 Remington manual typewriter17 which my grandmother had given me back when I was 11 or 12 year old.
16. I think what I miss most about those glorious machines isn’t the wonderful CLACK! CLACK of the big clicky keys and the immediate response of the motor spinning the typeball and striking the correct letter against the paper, but rather the constant vibration of the motor you felt constantly against your fingertips.
17. One friend called it ‘The Tank’ because the typewriter weighed at least fifteen pounds and most of it was built out of machine-grade steel. Another friends called it ‘The Threshing Machine’ because the clatter and clacking it made when I was on a roll (typing a bit over 60 words per minute18, which was considered screaming on the old mechanicals) reminded him of some big farm equipment.
18. My speed on modern computer keyboards is generally a bit over 105 words per minute. And I still can’t keep up with the voices in my head when I’m really into a scene in a story.
19. Even if sometimes a bit messy depending on your HTML parser.
20. Whether figuratively or not.