This is a rare weekend in which I’ve completed two serious books– the aforementioned Newton and the Couterfeiter and Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America (a review copy showed up Friday, thanks guys), about which more later. They’re very different books, but both excellent in their own way.
While they have very different subjects, though, they have one unfortunate element in common, one of the most pernicious ideas in non-fiction publishing: the un-noted endnote. Both books are exhaustively researched and contain many pages of notes at the end of the text– just under 40 pages in Levenson’s book, and a whopping 65– nearly 50% of the length of the main text– in Unscientific America. And not a single one of those notes is indicated in the text. They all start with a page number and a phrase from the main text– for example, “87 “being rational is considered the opposite of being creative“: Interview with Matthew Chapman, August 20, 2008”– but are not indicated by a number or symbol on the relevant page.
I hate, hate hate this. It’s especially infuriating in Unscientific America, where the notes sometimes go on for multiple pages, and are critical to an appreciation of the main text. (Levenson’s notes in Newton and the Counterfeiter are mostly confined to the sourcing of particular bits of information, with occasional discussion relating to the interpretation of ambiguous source material.) Reading the book without reading the endnotes lessens the book– by almost 33%, in fact– but the lack of symbols or numbers in the main text forces the reader to be some sort of literary telepath, able to intuit when the authors want to make additional remarks. Or if you’re a mere mortal like myself, you end up going back at the end of the chapter and reading through all the notes at once, making for a very disjointed reading experience.
I’m not sure what the logic process behind doing the notes this way is– I suspect it’s an impression on somebody’s part that having actual note symbols would feel too intimidatingly academic. Whatever the logic for it, though, it’s an absolutely horrendous decision.
If you think that the density of notes would prove too much for the text, then do something to limit the notes– split them into source references (which aren’t critical to the reading experiences) and digressions from/ expansions on the main text (which are critical), and handle them differently. Put the digressions/expansions in real footnotes, or endnotes with numbers, so the reader knows to go read them at the appropriate time, and put the source citations in another section, or on the web site that accompanies the book (note to self: finish formatting the references for How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, and put them on DogPhysics.com). Or just try to pare down the number of discursive endnotes to the absolute minimum so that the notes aren’t oppressive.
Whatever you do, though, stop with the un-noted endnotes. They’re a blight on the publishing landscape.