NY Times: Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?

The New York Times asks the question: “Will the E-Book Kill the Footnote?

“The footnote jousting could soon be moot, as the e-book may inadvertently be driving footnotes to extinction. The e-book hasn’t killed the book; instead, it’s killing the “page.” Today’s e-readers scroll text continuously, eliminating the single preformed page, along with any text defined by being on its bottom. A spokesman for the Kindle assured me that it is at the discretion of the publisher how to treat footnotes. Most are demoted to hyperlinked endnotes or, worst of all, unlinked endnotes that require scrolling through the e-reader to access. Few of these will be read, to be sure.”

Will it, really? Sure, the idea of something new “killing” something old provides grounds for some good debate, but I for one don’t see an inherent contradiction in the notion of an ebook page. (And, for whatever it’s worth: CNET: “Amazon adding ‘real’ page numbers to Kindle”).

While the NYT article mentions several amusing figurative descriptions of the footnote, we do understand that the footnote is if nothing else a form of information technology — that is, a way of navigating within the information of a book — and in this sense, a predecessor of the hyperlink (the author Alexandra Horowitz argues that footnotes are superior to the hyperlink … but what about a hyperlinked footnote? isn’t that a marked improvement?): “Footnotes really presage hyperlinks, the ultimate interrupter of a stream of thought.” Most footnotes and endnotes I’ve encountered in ebook form thus far have been somewhat lacking in presentation, so there’s unquestionably room for improvement in that regard.

Here’ an interesting bit of information about the audio book and the clever sotto voce presentation of the footnote:

“Even the audio book has solved the problem of how to convey footnotes. Listen to David Foster Wallace reading his essay collection “Consider the Lobster,” with its ubiquitous show-stealing asides: at a certain point, his voice is unnaturally distant, the result of a production trick intended to represent the small type of a footnote.

Wallace’s e-book was not immune to de-footnoting, though; all these crucial asides now appear at the end of the book in the Kindle and iPad versions.”*

And, of course, there’s Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote: A Curious History — which I want to check out, if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity: how many footnotes does a book on footnotes have?

To be fair, this really is a discussion more about the footnote in general, than about the fate of the footnote in an ebook world (it’ll be just fine). So, what is the purpose of the footnote?

“Surely the purpose of a book is not to present a methodically linear narrative, never wavering from its course, with no superfluous commentary set off by commas. In my mind, footnotes are simply another punctuative style: a subspecies of parenthesis that tells the reader: “I’ve got something else here you might like! (Read it later.)” What better thing?”

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*And, while we’re on the subject, be sure to check out this great video from our favorite footnoter: “David Foster Wallace on Footnotes.”


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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