Mar 132007

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.