Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Longest Footnote in Human History?

For those of you who don't already know, the long-awaited fourth volume of John Meier's multivolume work, A Marginal Jew, is finally out. All 735 pages of it.

While reading through the book this morning, I discovered what may well be the longest footnote/endnote in human history. At the beginning of his chapter on Jesus' teachings on divorce, Meier has an endnote that spans almost twelve single-spaced 10 point font pages! (See pp. 128-139). 

I challenge any of our (obviously erudite) readers to find me a footnote or endnote longer than this! Go ahead, try! Someone needs to contact the Guinness book of world records and add a new section to it.

Now, don't get me wrong, for many a year, I have loved long footnotes. Meier was, after all, my teacher at Notre Dame, and I sought to emulate his footnote style in my own dissertation. However, this new record does raise a question. How long is too long? How many footnotes (or endnotes, as in Meier's volume) is too many?

Do you prefer works like Meier's, which are accompanied by exhaustive footnotes/end-notes and excursuses? Or works like N. T. Wright and Richard Bauckham, which keep the notes to a minimum, functioning as a selective group of references? Thoughts? Advice for future books?


Sister Mary Agnes said...

Well, I am not a scholar, but I do like footnotes at the bottom of a page better than end notes, because it helps the flow of reading. However, when the footnote goes on and on listing multiple works as references, it is a little tedious in the text. I wonder if, in a case where a writer wants to give credit to a large number of references, he could do that in an epilogue, or in an additional credit section in the back. He could limit the footnote to the most prominent sources, and then give a much broader array of sources in the back. I don't know how scholarly that approach is. However, if the intended audience is the ordinary educated person who wants to learn more about their faith, it might work.

Sister Mary Agnes said...

I guess that didn't exactly answer your question. I value minimized notes and exhaustive notes both, but I think the exhaustive stuff should stay in the back.

Michael Barber said...


I laughed so hard at this.

Personally, I love long footnotes. It's one of the things I actually like best about Meier's works--he's extraordinarily thorough. I know a lot of people will say "less is more" but frankly, when it comes to scholarship, more is more. Now in the case you cited, an appendix might have been a better choice than a footnote. I guess a good rule of thumb might be: if your footnote can be broken up into more than two paragraphs, it's "more" than a footnote.

Another comment: I agree whole heartily with Sister Mary Agnes--endnotes are dreadful. I find them terribly frustrating. I realize people think footnotes make a text less readable than endnotes but I find just the opposite to be the case. I'm so curious about what might be in an endnote that I just have to turn to the back of the book. This always takes up more time. And when the endnote is lame I'm especially frustrated.

Footnotes rule!

Nick Norelli said...

Sister Mary and Michael are absolutely right, end notes are dreadful! The only time I find them tolerable is in popular level works where they supply bibliographic info. But a 12 page end note seems substantial enough to probably be included in the main text. Shame on Meier, shame on him!

Anonymous said...

You had me laughing at this, so I had to take a look for myself. Just to clarify for those who don't have a copy-- it is indeed an endnote, though it is a chapter endnote, not an endnote saved for the end of the entire book. And it is basically a bibliography on the topic of divorce. I wonder if the text would have been better served with a bibliography in its own right at the end of the chapter rather than a bibliography within a single endnote.

Rodrigo said...

Vintage Meier. And yes, endnotes are of the devil, except in the case Nick pointed out.

Dim Bulb said...

I wont take up the challenge, but if I did the first place I'd go is Father Raymond Brown's commentary on the Letters of John in the Anchor Bible Series. Just under 800 pages of introduction and commentary on those three short texts! there's gotta be a long footnote or two in there somewhere.

Isn't Meier (for want of a better term) a "disciple" of Brown?

Personally, I prefer scholars who are minimalists in their written verbosity. Their works are much more affordable and less likely to put my back out.

Anonymous said...

I consider the Mishnah to be the longest footnote in history.

Colonel4God said...

I definitely would rather the footnotes as opposed to endnotes. With regard to 12 pages of notes, I think it takes so far away from what your reading that by the time you get back to the sentence the note was referring to, you probably will have to re-read to get back into the train of thought.

TonyTheProf said...

Apparently Reverend John Hodgson's History of Northumberland has a footnote that runs for 264 pages, and has been called "the longest footnote ever."

I like middle sized footnotes, where subsidiary comments and arguments tangential to the main thrust of the text can get a broader airing. Popper's Open Society has copious footnotes, and ecven his autobiography does, one being the notorious "Wittgenstein's Poker" reference. There's gold in some of those footnotes!

Jim said...

i hate endnotes. hate them. im not fond of footnotes either. i rather prefer parenthetical notes. you can easily skip them if you choose and you dont have to try to scan the page to find your place again once you're done with them.

yes- parenthetical notes. they're the best.

Cooper said...

Not longer, though the font may well be 8. Infinite Jest. I've only read a 100 pages and finished today a 8 and a half page end note.

I found you as I was arguing with a friend about the longest end note ever.