Note (typography)  

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Western philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato -- Alfred Whitehead

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A note is a string of text placed at the bottom of a page in a book or document or at the end of a text. The note can provide an author's comments on the main text or citations of a reference work in support of the text, or both. A footnote is normally flagged by a superscripted number immediately following that portion of the text the note is in reference to.

The first idea1 for the first footnote on the page, the second idea2 for the second footnote, and so on.

Occasionally a number between brackets or parentheses is used instead, thus: [1]. Typographical devices such as the asterisk (*) or dagger (†) may also be used to point to footnotes; the traditional order of these symbols is *, †, ‡, §, ‖, .

Footnotes are notes at the foot of the page while endnotes are collected under a separate heading at the end of a chapter in a book or a document. Unlike footnotes, endnotes have the advantage of not affecting the image of the main text, but may cause inconvenience to readers who have to move back and forth between the main text and the endnotes.

Literary device

At times, notes have been used for their comical effect, or as a literary device.

  • J.G. Ballard's "Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown," is one sentence ("A discharged Broadmoor patient compiles 'Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown,' recalling his wife's murder, his trial and exoneration.") and a series of elaborate footnotes to each one of the words.
  • Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves uses what are arguably some of the most extensive and intricate footnotes in literature. Throughout the novel, footnotes are used to tell several different narratives outside of the main story. The physical orientation of the footnotes on the page also works to reflect the twisted feeling of the plot (often taking up several pages, appearing mirrored from page to page, vertical on either side of the page, or in boxes in the center of the page, in the middle of the central narrative).
  • Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman utilizes extensive and lengthy footnotes for the discussion of a fictional philosopher, de Selby. These footnotes span several pages and often overtake the main plotline, and add to the absurdist tone of the book.
  • David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest includes over 400 endnotes, some over a dozen pages long. Several literary critics suggested that the book be read with two bookmarks. Wallace uses footnotes in much of his other writing as well.
  • Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman (originally published in Spanish as El beso de la mujer araña) also makes extensive use of footnotes.
  • Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days includes lengthy footnotes and a parallel narrative.
  • Mark Dunn's Ibid: A Life is written entirely in endnotes.
  • Luis d'Antin van Rooten's Mots d'Heures: Gousses, Rames (the title is in French, but when pronounced, sounds similar to the English "Mother Goose Rhymes"), in which he is allegedly the editor of a manuscript by the fictional François Charles Fernand d’Antin, contains copious footnotes purporting to help explain the nonsensical French text. The point of the book is that each written French poem sounds like an English nursery rhyme.
  • Terry Pratchett has made numerous uses within his novels. The footnotes will often set up running jokes for the rest of the novel.
  • Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell uses dozens of footnotes referencing a number of fictional books including magical scholarship and biographies.
  • Jonathan Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy uses footnotes to insert comical remarks and explanations by one of the protagonists, Bartimaeus.
  • Michael Gerber's Barry Trotter parody series used footnotes to expand one-line jokes in the text into paragraph-long comedic monologues that would otherwise break the flow of the narrative.
  • John Green's An Abundance of Katherines uses footnotes in which he says: "[They] can allow you to create a kind of secret second narrative, which is important if, say, you're writing a book about what a story is and whether stories are significant."
  • Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series exploits the use of footnotes as a communication device (the footnoterphone) which allows communication between the main character’s universe and the fictional bookworld.
  • Ernest Hemingway's Natural History of the Dead uses a footnote to further satirize the style of a history while making a sardonic statement about the extinction of "humanists" in modern society.
  • Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version uses footnotes as a character device that highlights unreliable passages in the narration. As the editor of his father's autobiography, the narrator's son must correct any of his father's misstated facts. The frequency of these corrections increases as the father falls victim to both hubris and Alzheimer's disease. While most of these changes are minor, a few are essential to plot and character development.
  • In Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, the main plot is told through the annotative endnotes of a fictional editor.
  • Bartleby y compañía, a novel by Enrique Vila-Matas, is stylized as footnotes to a nonexistent novel.

Use of footnotes to evade censorship

Pierre Bayle

Pierre Bayle in his famous Historical and Critical Dictionary follows each brief entry with a footnote (often five or six times the length of the main text) in which saints, historical figures, and other topics are used as examples for philosophical digression. The separate footnotes are designed to contradict each other, and only when multiple footnotes are read together is Bayle's core argument for Fideistic skepticism revealed. This technique was used in part to evade the harsh censorship of 17th century France.

And in a "footnote to an article about the courtesan Ariosta, Pierre Bayle quotes another author's musings about the absurdity of the institution of marriage, or rather the singular power of the Latin liturgical formula “ego conjugo vos”" (A Wicked Company).

See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Note (typography)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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