The end for endnotes?

I’ve been reading Karen Cerulo’s Never saw it coming and while it’s generally pretty good, it contains what I assumed was a howler of a mistake, but turns out to be a gross misjudgement. Cerulo argues that the generally optimistic view taken by Americans does not extend to deviant groups, and uses as an example, the Heaven’s Gate cult which, as she states believed that they would be removed from the Earth by a spaceship following the comet Hale-Bopp, their true home’. As she says, most reporting of the group treated it as the epitome of the lunatic fringe. I assumed that Cerulo was somehow unaware of the fact that all the members of the group had committed suicide in an attempt to ensure that the spaceship didn’t miss them. I looked at the endnotes to check the dates on some of the cited media reports and discovered a note reading

144. Henry 1997, 4. Readers may recall in order to hasten their arrival in heaven, all thirty-nine members of the group engaged in a mass suicide

which to my mind justifies the lunatic fringe description. In any case, surely this point was important enough to include in the main text, or a footnote on the same page.

While I’m on this subject, is there any excuse for persevering with endnotes in books*? They’re just about useless, (those that don’t give something worse than useless like “ibid” or “loc cit”). If the material is of too little interest to be included in the main text or in footnotes, and can’t be omitted altogether for reasons of academic nicety, couldn’t it be placed in a supporting website?

* Footnote/endnote: A bit more discussion of this at Andrew Norton’s blog (thanks to Damien Eldridge for locating this for me)

10 thoughts on “The end for endnotes?

  1. I really dislike endnotes in books. If the writer isn’t skillful enough to work the relevant information into the chapter, he shouldn’t be writing a book.

    I’d much prefer to see them at the bottom of the page if they are really necessary. That way you don’t have to flip back and forth.

  2. I really like detailed endnotes in a good history narrative. Usually after reading such a book five or six times and sometimes more, I go ritualistically through the endnotes, like a quintessential glass of port after a good dinner.

    I think a detailed endnote section is quite nice if it can fill in gaps (and gives fun trivia). And it should be in the same medium as the book.

    But I agree that for scientific/mathematics books, I find endnotes useless.

    ( the program called endnotes is a programming disaster that is definitely more than useless. )

  3. Back in the days of skilled typesetters, fottontes required skill and were costly, especially if there were changes at the page proof stage. Consequently the cheap but hard to use endnotes took over. Today, with reasonable footnoting capability built into the almost universal Mikrokot Word and into printers’ packages, there’s no excuse for using endnotes. Footnotes should be mandatory for the kind of volume that requires citation by page number etc. (scholarly history…).

  4. “What about “Johnathan Strange and Mr Norellâ€??”

    Best fiction I’ve read in ages. But footnotes aren’t the issue here as I understand it. I for one love footnotes, hate endnotes. I was endlessly frustrated by Jeffery Robertson’s use of them in The Tyrannicide Brief. Big heavy book anyway, and at least once per page you had to flip to the back or miss the reference. Then half the time it was just a reference to some book or official you’d need special access to the British Library to access, rather than additional info, so the whole effort was more or less wasted.

    nnnngah!!!! Damn you Robertson you boofhead!!!

    Great book but.

  5. Belated submission.

    In my view BOTH footnotes and endnotes detract from the readibility of any given document. In my own writing I apply a style test along the lines “if it adds to the narrative / exposition / story then include it in the body of the work; if not, omit it”.

    This is a literary / communications approach to the issue, not an academic / scientific approach. The most obvious issue with omission of foot/end notes is source citation, and in some cases their inclusion is justifiable.

    I have a pal who is a professional historian. His research method generates heaps of endnotes which he assiduously documents. His “history” is a series of sentences and clauses which connect the endnote references. In his skilful hands this generates readable text, but I expect that this is more beause of his talent rather than a by-product of technique.

    Of the two choices, end notes are less obtrusive, in that I (along with lots of others I suspect) will be too lazy to refer to each endnote as the reference occurs in the body on first reading, and only reference them when following through on arguments and facts.

    The same goes for the journalistic equivalent of footnotes: text boxes and sidebar columns. More often than not I think the contents of these would have been better included in the main text. But then journos make judgements about the attention span of the general readership.

    Which brings me to PrQ’s suggestion of a hyperlink solution. This is not very useful for document reading and referencing on public transport, where I do most of my discretionary technical reading. Bring on wireless feeds to Action buses!

  6. […] by Aaron Haspel about the evils of poorly-done endnotes, and endnotes in general. This is something John has written about before, too. Endnotes really are a problem in scholarly books. In general, footnotes are better. […]

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