Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism is a comprehensive, highly entertaining history of libertarianism with too many points of interest — Murray Rothbard’s solution to the free rider problem (“so what?”), Milton Friedman’s sterling character, The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Deontologist — to deal with in a single post. Instead I want to talk about the notes.

Radicals for Capitalism is a scholarly, though not an academic, book, and like many such books it does plenty of business in the notes. Not as much as some, like Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which the notes are longer than the text, but enough. For instance, my friend (and frequent commenter) Jim Valliant’s book on the Brandens, The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics, receives a half-page treatment in the endnotes, but none in the text. Out of 2,000 notes, there are 400 or so that you want to read; the rest are simple source citations.

Doherty’s notes receive the standard treatment, which is to say the worst possible. The notes are renumbered by chapter, but each page of notes is headed, usefully, “Notes”; the chapter titles occur only on the beginning page of the notes for that chapter. To look up an endnote, then, you have to remember the number, remember the chapter number, flip to the notes section, locate the beginning page of the correct chapter, and then flip forward to the right note number, only to be disappointed most of the time with a mere source cite. (Admittedly it would be more efficient to use a bookmark, but I never have one handy, and they tend to fall out. At any rate, the necessity confesses design failure.)

Yet this is all so simple to fix. There are five rules for notes:

1. Footnotes, provided they are short and sparse, are better than endnotes. They can be consulted immediately and without effort. Obviously in a book like Doherty’s endnotes are necessary.

2. Each endnote page should be headed by the page numbers of the notes it contains, to facilitate easy flipping. For example, “Notes, pp. 537-558″; not “Notes: Chapter Seven,” or “Notes: A Stupid Chapter Title That I’ve Forgotten and Now You’re Gonna Make Me Look It Up,” or, God forbid, “Notes.”

3. Notes should not be numbered. Numbers tax the reader needlessly, especially when they reach three figures. They should be marked by a symbol in the text, something like this or this. In the back they should be referenced by the page number and the last few words of the passage that they annotate, which are the easiest things to remember.

It would be especially helpful to use two symbols, to distinguish substantive comments from simple citations, telling the reader when to flip to the back and when not to bother. I have never seen this in a scholarly book, and I wonder why.

4. The notes must be indexed. In Doherty’s book they are not. Had Jim Valliant gone looking for himself in the index, as I am assured august persons are wont to do, he would have come up empty. Why make trouble for Jim? If he merits a substantive mention, he also merits an index entry. I realize this is extra work. I expect extra work for my thirty-five bones, now marked down to $23.10, plus shipping.

5. The text should contain as little scholarly detritus as possible. Academic books often include source citations in the text, which avails the author the opportunity to look more erudite and avails the reader nothing, since if he wants to look up the source he has to consult the biblliography anyway. If the book has endnotes, that’s where the source cites belong.

A brilliant exception to this rule is Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, which contains no specific source cites, only an occasional parenthesis, when discussing a topic, that “the book to read is…” or “the book to browse in is…” If you are a nonagenarian and the world’s preeminent living intellectual, you can write like that. The rest of us cannot afford to be so peremptory. Still, Barzun’s asides have furthered my education, which is more than I can say for the usual uncommented bibliography.

Yes, a circle would be better. I can’t get a circle the right size using HTML character codes. Sorry.

Yes, a larger bullet would be better. See above. I trust you get the idea.

Update: Another intransigent opponent of endnotes, Billy Beck, heard from. I thank him for his recommendation of the Zerby book, which I will look up. Kieran Healy comments. Andrew Gelman comments. James Joyner comments. Evan Hughes comments.

Aaron Haspel | Posted March 13, 2007 @ 7:08 PM | Heuristic,Literature

23 Responses to “End and Foot”

  1. 1 1. Aaron's father

    Aaron, you wish to distinguish between source cites and more substantive comments, [Haspel 2007 point 3] yet you deplore “scholarly detritus” like citations in the text. [Haspel 2007 point 5] As you point out, citations in the text do not help the reader to look up the source, but they do tell the reader who wishes to skip citations to keep going, rather than chase an endnote only to find that it is a mere citation. Even the reader who does not wish to look up the cited material at least knows who said it and when, which can be very useful in evaluating its utility.

    During my very brief academic career, citations in the text were required by the scientific departments, while citations in the notes was the style of the rest of academia. A rare academic victory of logic over tradition, at least for the scientists.


  2. 2 2. Steve Sailer

    Charles Murray’s books often feature some well-thought out design features. I especially like how he insists on an extra bit of leading between the lines to make his text less daunting-looking. And his graphs are models of clarity.


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    It is true that you can occasionally gain from knowing the date and author of the source, but you trade off a great deal for that. Citations in the text are distracting; they interrupt one’s reading flow. (Of course if the text is sufficiently dense one may have no reading flow to speak of.) And I proposed what I think is a better solution for the reader who wants to skip citations.

    Steve, I agree with you about Murray’s books; the graphs in The Bell Curve, for instance, show that he has studied Tufte with profit. But far and away the best-designed academic book I have ever seen, and well worth reading even if it were badly designed, is Christof Koch’s The Quest for Consciousness.


  4. 4 4. Pawlie Kokonuts

    A noteworthy post. Am I to feel guilty, or sheepish, for so simple and unfettered a comment, free of academic detritus?


  5. 5 5. Udolpho

    In my view, endnotes should be abolished and books should return to having all notes as footnotes. But especially notes which give substantial additional information (not merely a citation). I can really think of no good reason why endnotes exist.


  6. 6 6. Aaron Haspel

    While endnotes are often abused, they can be valuable to elaborate a point at a level of detail that will likely not interest most readers. The more lengthy and frequent such elaborations are, the more problematic footnotes become. I enjoyed the endnotes to The Open Society but I would not have wanted them in the text.


  7. 7 7. Jim Valliant

    Thanks, Aaron.

    Doherty seems to admit that PARC provides a fundamental challenge to the Brandens’ accounts — and, yet, he fully endorses them in his text, where their stories are treated uncritically.


  8. 8 8. Aaron Haspel

    Doherty does say in his note that he read your book late in the game — too late, one surmises, to rewrite the section. I think the note itself is fair, but he ought at least to have put a sentence in the text that your book calls the Brandens’ stories very much into question.


  9. 9 9. Jim Valliant

    Right, as usual.

    Thanks, again.


  10. 10 10. Jason

    “Obviously in a book like Doherty’s endnotes are necessary.”

    Oh, really? Anything I dislike about a book can be attributed to lack of discipline on the part of the writer. Annoying end notes are a prime example. An end note says, “The book I’m writing is all polished and level, and this bit doesn’t logically fit anywhere and should be left out. But I like it, so I’m putting it in anyway.” It should be no surprise that such self-indulgence wrecks the reader’s experience.


  11. 11 11. Aaron Haspel

    Incapable though I am of saying what you do and don’t like, I suspect that you have found flaws in books that cannot be attributed to the writer’s lack of discipline. Lack of intelligence, I am sure, is at least as common.

    Are endnotes self-indulgent? Depends; I like short books too. It is not self-indulgent in a scholarly work to cite your sources, and if you have a great many of them, as Doherty does, it is sensible to put them at the end. Substantive endnotes, to which Udolpho also objected, are a nicer question. Perhaps, as in the Valliant case, the author happened on a source too late to revise his text substantially. In that case it is reasonable to add an endnote and postpone the rest until the second edition.

    Or perhaps, more commonly, you simply want to provide more detail without interrupting your narrative. Books have many readers, of various interests. If there is a device available to allow readers who want the fine detail to pursue it, without disturbing readers who do not, why is it self-indulgent to employ it?


  12. 12 12. Mike Schneider

    “…Perhaps, as in the Valliant case, the author happened on a source too late to revise his text substantially. In that case it is reasonable to add an endnote and postpone the rest until the second edition…”

    While this was perfectly legitimate in the typewriter era, it serves as no excuse today (and really for the last twenty years) when there are myriad publishing software titles capable of automatically flowing footnotes as text is altered.


  13. 13 13. Aaron Haspel

    Mike, I’m not talking about logistics. A long section of Doherty’s book depended on tales told by the Brandens, whose reliability Valliant’s book calls into question. Doherty would essentially have had to rewrite it, and no publishing software I am acquainted with can do that for you.

    Gottlob Frege, famously, was faced with a similar problem. Just as he was about to publish the second volume of The Basic Laws of Arithmetic, he received a letter from Bertrand Russell demonstrating that Frege’s axioms were inconsistent. Frege published anyway, discussing Russell’s objection in an appendix. You can’t blame him.


  14. 14 14. Jason

    “In that case it is reasonable to add an endnote and postpone the rest until the second edition.”

    Perhaps, but I would add a footnote; or if I want more room, a footnote briefly explaining and referring the reader to a postscript.

    “Or perhaps, more commonly, you simply want to provide more detail without interrupting your narrative. Books have many readers, of various interests. If there is a device available to allow readers who want the fine detail to pursue it, without disturbing readers who do not, why is it self-indulgent to employ it?”

    Er, the scholarly writer who carefully balances the needs of various classes of readers is… hmm… rare.

    The whole point is that it does disturb readers, all readers. There are better devices.

    On the Web, one doesn’t provide a link without at least suggesting what it points to. It’s rude. The user doesn’t know whether to follow the link or not.


  15. 15 15. Jim Valliant

    I have more to say about Doherty’s book at http://www.solopassion.com.


  16. 16 16. Aaron Swartz

    It would be especially helpful to use two symbols, to distinguish substantive comments from simple citations, telling the reader when to flip to the back and when not to bother. I have never seen this in a scholarly book, and I wonder why.

    Has any book done this? I’ve been looking and haven’t seen any.


  17. 17 17. Aaron Haspel

    Scholarly or otherwise you mean? Not that I know of. But there’s certainly room for innovation in endnotes, and I still like the suggestion despite Kieran’s failure to endorse it.


  18. 18 18. Tristram Brelstaff

    Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, in which the notes are longer than the text

    I have always regarded Popper’s three-volume Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery as just some foot notes that grew out of control. But I got the impression that that was how Popper wrote: by expanding foot-notes.


  19. 19 19. Stuart Buck

    My thoughts from last year on this topic.


  20. 20 20. ChE

    In The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, he uses footnotes for asides (typically with an asterisk), whereas he leaves simple citations in the end notes, listed numerically. Works well.


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