In Praise Of Footnotes

MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER THEIR first kiss, their wedding night, the birth of a child. I -- like most writers -- also remember the day I first became a footnote. There, at the bottom of a page, was my name, preceded by a tiny number and followed by the title of my book and the page cited. And lo! a few pages later I appeared again, this time folded neatly into a discreet op.cit.1

To be a footnote is to know that at least one reader out there takes you seriously. Once a footnote, a writer is no longer just an author, but an authority. Television, in contrast, confers mere celebrity. To be a footnote is to achieve a kind of immortality, a posthumous existence in the pages of someone else's book. But now a growing number of publishers -- at Harvard and other university presses, yet -- are abolishing footnotes because their marketing mavens say they scare the general reader off.

What sort of person is it who doesn't love a footnote? Some are scholars who, apparently, believe that what they have to say is so novel that citing sources tarnishes their claims to originality. And then there are those rigid egalitarians who think that any display of erudition, via footnotes, is inherently elitist.

Well, I am a general reader and I often read books from university presses. The more footnotes the better, I say. I'm not a purist, mind you. If publishers want to turn footnotes into endnotes2, as is now the fashion, they'll get no complaint from me. I always scan the endnotes before taking up the text: it's the surest way to discover whether the author has done his homework. If an author who claims to be serious cites mainly journalistic articles (especially my own), chances are I won't learn much that's new.

Journalists sometimes have morally good reasons for shielding their sources. Scholars never do. Scholars are not like God, creating out of nothing. Nor are they Lone Rangers, going it alone. Footnotes are reminders that scholarship is an intrinsically communal enterprise -- building on, revising or replacing the work of predecessors. History as we know it would not exist without source notes. Neither would philosophy, which even at its most original involves a dialogue with thinkers alive and dead. Poets often disguise their debts to other poets, but what devotee of T. S. Eliot would ignore his endnotes to ""The Wasteland,'' however extraneous they are to the pleasure of the text?

To be sure, footnotes may sometimes strike the general reader as mere display of intellectual vanity. ""Look at all the books I've read,'' they seem to say. But the place where vain scholars are most apt to brag is in the bibliography, where authors can easily list more books than they have actually read. The well-wrought note, on the other hand, is specific, allowing the reader to check up on authorial claims. In short, source notes are the opposite of elitist: anyone can use them to ""out'' the author who misuses or misconstrues another's work.

But that's not why I love footnotes. Those that yield the greatest pleasure are the kind that serve more than bibliographic purposes. Regardless of where the publisher puts them, these discursive notes are like the cloakrooms of Congress: they're the places where the author takes the reader into his confidence, revealing what he really thinks about his colleagues. I've read notes that resemble Russian dolls: footnotes within footnotes, aside piled on scholarly aside, sometimes running on for pages.

There are books without footnotes, just as there are homes without porches, restaurants without bars. Millions have grown old without knowing the pleasures of these civilized appendages. Put books on tapes, if you must, but please include the footnotes.

1 Abbreviation for the Latin opere citato, meaning ""in the work cited.'' Perhaps one reason for resentment of footnotes is that few readers know Latin anymore.

2 Endnotes are footnotes placed at the back of a book, before the bibliography.