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Thursday 8 November 2012

Notes : a rant.

It's notes in a novel that have got my goat: footnotes or endnotes, that is.
Now, I wouldn’t want to be without notes because I like to learn things, but notes are often really really really annoying.
Look. Any sort of note is going to throw the reader out of the story, right? So the only excuse for putting in a note is if the reader is so baffled he’s been thrown out of the story already.
I’ve been reading the Oxford World Classics edition of Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope. The notes aren’t bad, mostly. Sometimes they’re quite understandable (by which I mean, more understandable than the book). Chapter 73, for instance, is entitled P.P.C. and I wouldn’t have had a clue what that meant if the notes (by Simon Dentith) hadn't explained that P.P.C. stands for pour prendre congé, which means to take leave. (I think you were supposed to write P.P.C on your visiting cards when you were going away on a journey; but I’m not sure because the note didn’t tell me.)
But then we get to the description of the Duke’s London party. Trollope tells us that the “haycocks...were ready prepared”. Well, there I am wondering why anyone should provide haycocks at a London party for posh people in the 1860s, and so I’m glad to see the asterisk which promises to tell me. And what does it say once I’ve leafed to the back of the book? It says “conical heaps of hay in a field”.

Yes, yes, I know that! But why are they there? Why? Why??
I understand that life is hard for a note writer. How can anyone know, after all, what other people know? I once wrote a children’s version of a classic book, and when it came out I discovered that the word famine had been given a note, but not the reference to Aristotle.
The hardest notes to justify are when the author of a novel has put in his own (why not write something comprehensible to start with?) and this is the reason why I haven't written this post with lots of footnotes.1

So everybody, please take note.

No, please.


Take them.

Word To Use Today: note. This word is from the Latin word nota, which means sign or notification.
1And you’re glad I didn’t, aren’t you.


  1. Couldn't agree more! Notes cause more trouble than they solve, often. One could easily make a note oneself, in the old fashioned way, to look up whatever one needed to, on Google or a good book or somewhere....wonder what those HAYCOCKS were. A cocktail of some kind? Who knows?

  2. On reflection, I think the haycocks at the Duke of Omnium's party may have been metaphorical ones: ie places for lovers to meet.

    But as there wasn't a learned note to tell me, I still can't be sure.

    Do wish I knew!


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