I first experienced footnotes in fiction when I read Foundation by Isaac Asimov and I immediately fell in love with the concept. The singular footnote in Foundation is a citation with publishing information for the fictional encyclopedia that is quoted throughout the book. It is not exactly integral to the story, however, it instantly makes the world of the book feel bigger. Early on in Foundation, the encyclopedia project is cast-off as a non-priority, yet that footnote informs readers that the encyclopedia is not only eventually completed, but published in at least 116 editions. On a more comforting note, the reader also knows that in the future the world still exists in some recognizable form. We don’t know whether the interceding years were a cultural Dark Ages or maybe even a time of great innovation, but we at least know that we are not heading towards a post-apocolyptic world.
Footnotes in fiction do not always take the form of formal citations. Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being, and The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara both feature annotations of first person material. In Time Being, one character annotates a diary that washed up on the beach. In them, unfamiliar words and concepts are defined, commentary is offered, and a social reading environment is created. The translation of Japanese words in the footnotes keeps the reader engaged in the story and not constantly flipping through a dictionary. Other commentary provides feedback on the text in real time which turns a normally solitary activity into one that feels more like a discussion at book club. It is like reading along with a friend who pipes up with interesting facts and clarifying context.
Annotations also add an interesting layer to the story because they are seldom written by an unbiased voice. In Trees, a Nobel Prize winning, but now-disgraced medical researcher writes his memoir from prison and it is edited and annotated by a long-time colleague of the inmate. The memoir unabashedly discusses some unsavory parts of the inmate’s past, which the colleague attempts to justify and whitewash in the annotations. The closeness of the relationship between author and editor eventually leads the editor to excise a passage that he feels would be damning to the inmate’s reputation. However, even that footnote is telling because it confirms the reader’s worst fears about the main character.
Of course, not every book in the fiction section would be improved with the addition of footnotes. They force the reader to acknowledge that the text they are reading has been edited and adjusted along the way. The end result is less that you are swept up in current of the story and more that you are collecting pieces of the story and watching them fall into place. But the act of collecting pieces gives you the freedom to rummage around a bit in the story as you synthesize the information. Maybe commentary in the footnote prompts you to reassess the reliability of the narrator or slows you down long enough to wonder about what seems to be an inevitable course of action. A useful footnote should either clarify to improve your comprehension or obscure in a way that forces you to think deeply about what you have read. Great books aren’t only a single layer deep and footnotes provide one of those extra layers.
I feel a tiny burst of joy when I see a footnote waiting for me at the bottom of the page, like the prize at the bottom of the cereal box, an extra nugget of plot to devour. You never know what exactly you will find in those unassuming sentences in tiny font. But beware, footnotes are very easy to fall in love with, so don’t be surprised if your heart starts to leap when you see one at the bottom of the page.