October 10, 2011

A provocative piece by Alexandra Horowitz in the New York Times wonders whether the rise of the eBook means the demise of the footnote. Notes Horowitz:

…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.

There are, of course, lots of reasons to keep the footnote where it is, proximate to the text it references, as Horowitz argues eloquently — and to not shunt it off to the endnotes. Particularly important in contemporary writing is the “digressive” footnote, but scholars and lawyers alike are also affected.
What to do? Audio books handle footnotes with production tricks. One commentator (April Brown) notes that browser-based media can also handle the footnote as a mouseover popup. That at least keeps it proximate to the referenced text.
But let it also be said: If your work has a lot of footnotes, it’s going to be a royal pain to get them into the eBook format using popups. Though the technology is there (with some reservations), at the moment it means fussing with the underlying code. As with most things, publishers and eBook authors often take the path of least resistance. Put this down as another place where better tools are required.
And, having recently read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” in eBook format, I can attest that having his footnotes converted to endnotes was a thoroughly unsatisfactory experience. Horowitz is right. I read few of them. Their relationship to the prose was lost. It shouldn’t be like that.

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