Death to the Un-Noted Endnote

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.

Comments

  1. #1 mmr
    July 5, 2009

    Well, don’t blame the authors. Publishers force them to format that way for trade books.

  2. #2 mmr
    July 5, 2009

    Well, don’t blame the authors. Publishers force them to format that way for trade books.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    July 5, 2009

    I don’t really care who’s doing it, I just wish they’d stop. Publishers, authors, rogue typesetters– whoever’s behind this needs to stop it.

  4. #4 Jann
    July 5, 2009

    Ah, thought you called for an end to EndNote…

    But yes, this is pretty annoying too.

  5. #5 chezjake
    July 5, 2009

    I agree completely, Chad. I’m old school and really prefer footnotes, but end notes must be tied in from the main text.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    July 6, 2009

    In my Monday morning state of mind, I initially read the title as “Death to the Un-Needed Endnote.” That works just as well. If the author (or publisher or typesetter) can’t be bothered to draw my attention to the existence of further discussion of the point, then there is no reason to include said further discussion in an endnote. As you imply, it’s one thing for a mystery end note to merely point to source material (although that’s bad enough); it’s another thing to carry on a long digression without a pointer to it from the main text.

    Like chezjake, I prefer footnotes, though I understand why publishers don’t. With endnotes there is no such excuse,[1] because certain journals (APS, if I remember right) have already solved the problem.[2]

    [1]Not that different typefaces are a genuine problem. Donald Knuth solved that problem with TeX, and Microsoft Word implements a different solution to the problem.

    [2]Exactly like this.

  7. #7 Thony C.
    July 6, 2009

    …rogue typesetters…

    Unfortunately the typesetter has gone the way of the lamplighter and the wheel tapper a victim of the computer revolution :-(

    On your main point I’m in total agreement as I am currently reading two books with this perversion; one is Newton and the Counterfieter and the other is David Wallace’s The Compact History of Infinity, the second of which has perversely footnotes in the text and then unnoted endnotes for sources !

  8. #8 Chuk
    July 6, 2009

    I hate that too. I end up reading a page or two of text, then checking to see if there were any endnotes about those pages. Decidedly non-optimal.

  9. #9 Wilson
    July 6, 2009

    I’m in total agreement.

    I may not have bought these books anyway – I prefer to borrow from the library – but now I know I won’t buy them, because of this.

    I may even get off my duff and write to the publisher to say so.

  10. #10 Chris C. Mooney
    July 6, 2009

    Chad,
    I want to thank you for reading the book! I think I am gonna do a post explaining what we were up to with the notes…and why it had to be that way. There is tons of rich material in there, which we didn’t want to lose entirely, but at the same time, we really wanted readers to be able to breeze through the text itself easily, and only pursue further detail if they felt so inclined. So we cut the book from roughly 70,000 words down to 40,000. I’ll do a post explaining why we edited it this way….

  11. #11 Tom Levenson
    July 6, 2009

    Chad — also my thanks for your generous read of my book. And Wilson…now you’ve made an author cry. ;)

    Seriously: this is a real problem. I fully supported my publisher’s decision to forgo superscript numbers in the text. My previous book, “Einstein in Berlin” had them, and I got enough feedback that the “academic” quality of the layout deterred them from a book that was (or at least wanted to be) both rigorously sourced and contextualized and accessible to the widest possible audience.

    That said, this could be done better, probably with some combination of footnotes and endnotes.

    As Chris plans, I’ll post on this in the next day or two, but broadly, one thing I think is that this is another reason to look forward to ebooks that work better than Kindle editions now do for me. Nothing like an annotation mechanism that works like a link in a post, now is there?

  12. #12 TomJoe
    July 6, 2009

    Yeah, that would be so amazing annoying. I don’t know why either. I just finished reading Flyboys by James Bradley and it was properly documented.

  13. #13 Chris C. Mooney
    July 6, 2009

    Tom,
    Just to add, if only I could’ve written the book with real hyperlinks, it would have been perfect.

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