Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fancy Footnotes

I am reading a lot of "Ye Olde English" and "Ye Olde Middle English" these days. I like it. But sometimes the reading goes very slowly.

The problem I am having with my Norton Anthology of medieval literature is the overabundance of footnotes. The editors use the notes to clarify historical context, define unfamiliar words, or clarify the unclear grammar of yore. The first type of footnotes are usually appreciated, and can be conveniently skipped over if a reader is savvy enough to figure out when they are about to be directed to a historical footnote, i.e. the little "1" is next to the name of a saint or a city.

The other two types of footnotes (definitions and grammar clarifications) however, should be used sparingly. Moreover, they should not be repeated.

After reading Sir Thomas Mallory and the Gawain poet, I have a good idea of what many of the quirky medieval terms mean, and how some of the archaic verb forms work. "Wit" used to mean "know," and it was conjugated as wit, woot, and other funny forms that sound like owl calls. "Wert," however, just means "were." The first note on each of these words was all I needed.

But the editors felt it necessary to label every one! So in the middle of some already dense middle English, as I am using the margin notes to understand the very weird words, my eyes keep catching little ones, twos, and threes, and darting down to the bottom of the page to search for the corresponding number, which nine times out of ten precedes a tidbit of information I had long stored away.

The editors chose to print Chaucer's Canterbury Tales "untranslated" which makes it a lot of fun (I mean it). But now my reading is going slower than ever. The professor handed out "translations" taken from a paperback edition of the Tales, but they just don't do the language justice. I would rather like to get through the middle English version instead, but that endeavor may take longer than my midterm schedule allows.

In the past I have had the same trouble with Shakespeare's plays. By now I have found the versions and publishers that I like, and I can skim through a play with only minor distractions from the well placed notes in, for instance, the Oxford editions. But unfortunately, more archaic and obscure literature like Margery Kempe or Marie de France is not as readily available in thousands of formats like Shakespeare's plays. So we are at the mercy of the editors -- they may choose to give us no notes at all or to distract us endlessly with repeated information. Usually they choose the latter method of footnoting.

Although the Norton Anthologies are printed on Bible-thin pages I still think they might save a tree or two if they cut back a little on the footnotes.

I hope that it becomes clear to editors of critical editions of anthologies and single works that those who are reading these kinds of books are interested in the material -- perhaps they are even English majors or PhD students! Some anthologies are certainly intended for high school and lower level college courses, but period specific anthologies and critical editions of single texts are probably being read a little more closely and by an audience that is a bit more sophisticated than your average reader of a collection of "stories."

Finally, I wonder at the intent of all these notes. Are they trying to make it easier, to reach out a hand to students who struggle with reading and help them over ye olde river of middle English? Do they think of their burgeoning notes as a sign of their benevolence to us? Or are they convinced that today's scholars of literature are completely hopeless when it comes to learning and retaining new words? Do they make fun of us as they type up their notes?

If I have to read a footnote definition of "woot" one more time in this edition, I shall consider my intelligence officially insulted.

Please save the forests, save the eyes of English students (we certainly need them to stay sharp for years to come), and save time for everyone involved -- stop the fancy footnote work!


  1. Robyn!! I've missed you lately!

    When I started reading this latest blog entry, it brought to mind Danse Macabre by Stephen King. He has a footnote that he states may be the longest footnote in history. I think it was about a page and a half.

    I've heard that Norton is particularly guilty of an overabundance of footnotes. I always wondered what a book of purely footnotes would look like (probably a lot like the Cliff Notes series ;-p). Footnotes actually being repeated? That has got to be irritating.

    You mentioned my favorite editions of Shakespeare: the Oxford editions. I actually get irritated when someone gets me another version. I'm sorry to hear that more obscure texts are harder to come by (I'm sure you can guess my feelings on that). It seems such a shame that editors feel the need to dumb everything down with an overabundance of unnecessary notes.

    You would think that the editors would realize the people reading texts such as the ones you mentioned might have some kind of background knowledge on the grammar and structure of things. Wouldn't it make more sense to publish a book specifically on grammar in Middle English for those who might not?

    If your intelligence is officially insulted, you should call up the party guilty of the over-footnoting and demand satisfaction!

    Another very enjoyable entry in the blog. It was a real pleasurable read, and thankfully free of footnotes :-D


  2. I had no idea that the word "woot" was more than aninterjection used by gamers. Although I suppose technically it's a different word because it's spelled "w00t"...anyways now that I've outed myself as a geek, I hope I haven't insulted your intelligence in an official or unofficial capacity.

    It would be pretty irritating to be subjected to the same footnote so many times. I think a good solution would be to use a system based on different types of symbols instead of just numbers. Say, triangles for historical context, circles for definitions, etc. Using different colors could be a good addition to using the different symbols, but using colors alone might cause some problems for color blind people. Obviously this doesn't address copies already in print, but there's always hope for the future (and digital copies, if they exist).


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