Sunday, June 27, 2010

TSS: Footnotes

Have I mentioned lately that I am reading War and Peace at the moment? I may have done once or twice mainly because I am pretty pleased with myself for giving this a go!  I am not surprised that I am enjoying it, because I know that I liked Anna Karenina, but it still took a while to get to the point of wanting to read the next Tolstoy novel.

One of the things that I have been thinking about whilst reading it is the use of notes related to the text. Just recently I was also reading Mort by Terry Pratchett, who is a contemporary author who loves to use footnotes in his Discworld novels, as does another favourite novelist of mine, Jasper Fforde. Now to put Tolstoy, Pratchett and Fforde in the same post may seem like a bit of a stretch, but I am going to do it anyway.

In classics the use of notes, whether they be footnotes, or notes that are at the back of the book (what are they called when they are at the back of the book anyway?), is very prevalent. A lot of the time they are there to explain contextual points that the original audience would have already been familiar with and would have understood but that for the modern reader have been lost in the sands of time.

Today's post really is a question about how people read footnotes/annotations. I tend to put the bookmark at the page where the relevant notes for this section are so that I can easily flick back and forward and I read the note as soon as I see it mentioned the number annotating that there is a note in the text. Is this what other readers do as well, or do you read to the end of the paragraph and then go back and read the notes?

Do you prefer your notes to be at the back of the book or to be at the bottom of the page? For the translation I am reading of War and Peace there wasn't really an option to put the notes at the bottom of the page, because there is quite a lot of the text that was originally written in French, and a little bit of German, and it has been left as French and German in the translation, and therefore at the bottom of the page there is the English translation.

So how do Pratchett and Fforde fit into this discussion? Both of the authors like to have what I think of as almost asides in the footnotes. Some times in Pratchett's case they could be notes that go off on a tangent or just a funny comment.

I have often wondered how audiobooks deal with the footnotes. Is it different for the contemporary novelist than it is for the classics?

So, on this cool wintery Sunday (for me at least), let's talk footnotes.


  1. Hi Marg

    I often find myself not reading the footnotes or other notes at all. It depends if they are crucial to the story or if I can fill in the gaps on my own. I know this is appalling and lazy but the added bits can just detract from my enjoyment and break the reading flow. I do like a family tree or map in the front of some of the historical fiction that one can flick back to.

    I am glad you are enjoying War and Peace. I read it many years ago and remember really enjoying it.

  2. I do read footnotes ,forwards and the afterwards {think thats the bit a the back} as well!
    I also love reading the background info it if around be it on web or getting other books to follow.

  3. I have fallen into the habit of reading the footnotes (if they are at the back of the book) before I read the book - mostly they don't make sense when I read them but then as I read they fall into context. Backwards, I know, but when reading biographies it seemed to allow the text to flow.

    If the footnotes are at the bottom of the page I take a moment to glance at them while on the page.

    You have a nice day today all rugged up against the cold.

  4. Really very relavant artical with the topic it is good work.

  5. Ha! If you like footnotes, you should read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Just the footnotes alone are, like, 200 pages. :P

    Footnotes at the back of the book can be called either footnotes or endnotes. I think the two terms are used interchangeably these days, at least in the US. I prefer footnotes at the end of the page, because then I don't have to flip back and forth, which is a PAIN. If they're at the back I usually just don't read them unless I'm reading the book for a school paper or something.

    PS-I had no idea Tolstoy used footnotes!

  6. I stopped listening to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell on audio because the footnotes made it very disorienting. I keep meaning to go back to it in print, but haven't yet.

    I LOVE Anna K and just read a chapter in Beowulf on the Beach that makes me want to read War and Peace very soon.

  7. Someone once wrote that reading footnotes is like being upstairs engaged in horizontal folk dancing and having to stop mid-way and go downstairs to answer the door bell. (I'd love to know who wrote that. I can't remember, so if anyone does know, please tell me!)

    That pretty much explains my attitude to footnotes and endnotes: they just interrupt the flow of the narrrative. I might read the endnotes when I've finished the book, but unless it's to do with translation, I don't bother with footnotes.

  8. I haven't read many fiction works with footnotes, but if there and on the same page I read them once I get to the end of the paragraph - don't like breaking the flow. If at the back of the book I wait until the end of the page. I do however love little maps and family trees and refer to them more often. For instance, in One Hundred Years of Solitude (Marquez) that I'm reading at the moment, I am always referring to the family tree because there are so many people in the family with the same given names!

    Impressed that you are reading War & Peace by the way - I have Anna Karenina waiting on my Kindle for me, and look forward to diving in but want to do that at a time when I can get truly immersed in it (not at financial year end!).

  9. I like footnotes and end notes (the ones at the end) as they enhance the story for me.

  10. One of these days I'll pick up War and Peace again. The timing just hasn't been right. Like you, I liked Anna Karenina and expect to like Tolstoy's other works.

    I prefer my footnotes to be at the bottom of the page as I am very unlikely to flip to the back of the book to read them. I tend to forget they're there, as a result.

  11. I don't like footnotes (Terry Pratchett's are ok though because it's part of the story) and if there's a choice between a book with and a book without I'll go for the one without, but if there's no choice I prefer them at the back.

  12. Another example of innovative use of footnotes is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, purely fictional footnotes, but such a great addition to the narrative. I in general like footnotes & prefer them to be at the bottom of the page. My annoted copy of Middlemarch has them in the end which is a bit unconvinient, but a great reason to use two bookmarks while reading! :)


  13. I prefer mine to be at the bottom of the page or else I skip them. I know...the horror! I wonder too how footnotes are handled in audiobooks. I don't listen to many audiobooks but it's a good question.

  14. Amy, I do listen to audiobooks occasionally but never one that has footnotes.

    Tiina, I bought Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell the first day I saw it in the shops here, which was probably 5 years ago now at least. Never even read the first page!

    Charlie, I think the Pratchett ones are often among the funniest parts of the books!

    Literary Feline, I know what you mean about timing. I read Anna Karenina about 6 or 7 years ago now, but it didn't feel right to pick up War and Peace until now. Sometimes if it isn't the right day, it is so much harder and less enjoyable than it should be.

    End notes! That was the term I was looking for. Thanks Page.

    Booklover Book Reviews, ah yes, all those Jose Arcadio and Aurelianos! I like having family trees etc in historical fiction too, as there are often lots of characters who have the same names.

    Violet, I love that visual, and it makes total sense.

    CarrieK, in the audio how did they treat the footnotes. Did it interrupt the text and say footnote or something like that. I've been curious for a while.

    Heidenkind, I am pretty sure that Tolstoy wouldn't have used Footnotes, but that they are used in modern translations to explain terms, references and people who would have been familiar to the original audience, but aren't to more modern readers.

    livemorenow, Ha! I would never have thought to read them all before I read the book!

    Marshalslion, I tend to read the introductions and afterwards and appendices etc as well. Can't call the book complete if you don't read it all. I don't however like it when the intro gives away too many of the plot points!

    Mel, there are a lot that I don't think are really that integral to the understanding of the plot but some of them are! Guess I will just have to keep reading.

  15. Marg - in the audio, he altered his voice into more of a newscaster style - instead of telling a story, he was relating facts. It did definitely interrupt the flow - that's why I quit listening to it. I do plan on returning to it in print someday, though, because I liked all the word play.

  16. i usually love footnotes, but i only really like them at the bottom of the page. Anything else just gets distracting for me.

  17. Enjoying War and Peace? Hmmm...that's intriguing. I also enjoyed AK so maybe W&P wouldn't be so bad.
    I use a post it and flip back and forth for the notes. The notes are there for a reason so I should probably read them.



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