ALAN HALSEY: A Brief but Heartfelt Farewell to Footnotes

It’s rare these days to find a recently-published book with footnotes. They’ve been banished to the final pages of the volume or sometimes to the ends of its chapters. Who or what quorum of publishers or führer of format dictated this policy? Is it no more than a digital convenience (in either sense, for perhaps the back pages are merely a place to piss the notes away)? But this cannot be so: typesetting programmes make footnotes simple enough to insert. Do these style fundamentalists ever read the books they tyrannise? You may as well ask whether the authors of the Royal Mail schedule have once in their lives tried to post a parcel.

There’s little to be said in praise of endnotes. You either need to use a bookmark which the later pages fail to grip and so drop to the floor at the crucial moment or if all your bookmarks have as usual gone awol stick your thumb or forefinger there until it’s sorely rebellious. The third and most comfortable solution is to buy a second copy of the book and I suspect this is why endnotes are favoured by publishers: they are the secret agents of sales promotion. If you’re frugal enough to resist such temptation you’ll probably decide to let the notes lie in peace in their backpages graveyard – after all, when you do manage to find them they often disappoint, being merely a page reference to another book which you’ll probably never set eyes on and which is likely to host its own cemetery ghouls. You can recognise the species of a footnote at a glance, with none of that distracting fumble demanded by sly and reclusive endnotes. And yet sometimes the author has deposited there her wittiest remarks* – what a shame they may never be read. Although if they’re uncommonly good you could try skipping the main text.

The prejudice against footnotes cannot be aesthetic. How lovely were those pages with notes in their rightful place, diverting the eye down the page. What pleasures in the change of point, the scatter of italicised abbreviations, ibid. and loc. cit. hovering just below eyeshot. Endnotes consign them to a uniform limbo. I particularly loved those double spreads with footnotes so long and beguilingly digressive that the main text was constricted to a single line for page after page. Better still the leaves with additional sidenotes which migrated from medieval manuscripts into the early printings of Homer and Virgil, retained in densely allusive Bible folios and splendidly revived in my favourite chapter of Finnegans Wake. ‘Won’t you carry my can and fight the fairies?’ For ‘fairies’ read ‘furies’. But it seems that any gods or goddesses who watched over footnotes perished with the rest of the pantheon.

* See, for example, Mary Beard’s The Invention of Jane Harrison (Harvard UP, 2000), which prompted this lament.

Alan Halsey’s latest books are Rampant Inertia (Shearsman) and Versions of Martial (Knives Forks & Spoons). He is currently editing the third volume of Bill Griffiths’ collected poems, to be published by Reality Street in 2016. With Martin Archer he co-directs the antichoir Juxtavoices and he is an Affiliated Poet at Sheffield University’s Centre for Poetry & Poetics.


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