How to annotate?

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I'm currently working my way through Lolita (Appel annotated edition) and finding the annotation a bit heavy. Here's a not-so-randomly chosen but not-totally-unrepresentative page from the endonotes:
158/6 Christopher columbus' flagship: the zoo exists, in Evansville, Indiana. Its monkeys—kept out-of-doors on the ship from April to November—continue to be the zoo's most popular attraction.

158/7 Little Rock, near a school: rereading this passage in 1968, Nabokov called it "nicely prophetic" (the larger "row" over school desegregation, September 1957). For further "prophecy," see 226/3.

158/8 à propos de rien: French; not in relation to anything else; casually.

159/1 town... first name: "his" refers to Quilty, Clare, Michigan; an actual town.

159/2 species ... Homo pollex: H.H. combines the familiar Latin homo, "the genus of mammals consisting of mankind," with pollex, or "thumb."

159/3 viatic: H.H. sustains his "scientific" vocabulary; a coinage from the Latin root via. Viaticum is English—an allowance for travelling expenses—but H.H. has gone back to the Latin word viaticus, which specifically refers to the road.

159/4 priapically: from Priapus, the god of procreation.

159/6 man of my age...face à claques: Quilty, with "a face that deserves to be slapped; an ugly mischevious face." For an index to his appearances see 31/9.

159/6 concupiscence: lustfullness.

159/7 coulant un regard: French; casting a sly glance.

This is a bit less than one page of endnotes1 (I've omitted a note about Burma Shave2, and that reference XXX/Y means "note Y on page XXX", so this represents about half the notes on two pages of the text, since 158 has 5 notes which I haven't transcribed. You can of course ignore all these notes and just read the text, but if you're interested in a careful reading, you may well want to read them, with the concommitent risk of Wallacitis 3. The problem here is that while these notes are indicated in the text in the same way (with numbers in the margin), they're actually of quite different types:

  • 158/6 and 158/7 are sort of irrelevant asides that don't add much to the text.
  • 158/8 and 159/7 are translations from French.4
  • 159/1 and 159/6 indicate references to Clare Quilty of which there are a huge number.
  • 159/2 and 159/3 are translations from Latin.
  • 159/4 and 159/6 are simply explanations of English words you might have found difficult.

So, we have at least three categories: (1) translations of language you might find difficult (2) explanations of subtle allusions in the text [Quilty] and (3) more or less irrelevant asides that you might be interested in. If, for instance, you knew that reference 158/8 was just a translation from French, and you already knew what à propos de rien meant, you wouldn't need to go look it up in the endnotes at all, but as it is your reading flow is totally broken up while you flip to the back of the book.

The natural fix here is to have multiple types of annotation in the main text so you can tell at a glance what you're working with. Foster Wallace5 attacks this problem by using the notation IYI to indicate that a note is parenthetical, but this is not wholly satisfactory because the notation appears in the note and so your flow is already broken (though the fact that Wallace uses footnotes as opposed to endnotes does help). Given the exemplars above, we might do something like:

  • Translations/definitions: no notation but they're explained in notes if you flip to the back.
  • Subtle allusions: numbers as superscripts on the main text.6
  • Irrelevant asides: numbers in the margin.

The point of all this is to let you ignore the notes that you want to.7 This isn't wholly satisfactory, since we either have to intermix the allusions and asides at the end of the book (though of course you should be using footnotes) or have two separate sets of notes, both of which are clumsy (even if you have the allusions as footnotes instead of endnotes). Another possibility with a high enough note density is to put them on the facing page, but this chews up a lot of real estate if the note density is sufficiently low or highly variable.8

This is of course one of the cases where technology could really help. If you had an e-book, you could stop worrying about how the note text (as opposed to the indicator in the main text) was rendered. And if notes simply popped up when you selected them instead of taking the full context switch of a new page, you could minimize the flow interruption. Also, you could presumably program the e-book to display only notes you were interested in,9 while eliding the ones you don't care about. Of course, this would require there to be enough customers for e-books to bother giving them a treatment more sophisticated than just re-rendering the manuscript as it was typeset on the paper.

1. For more on endnotes see Rescorla 07
2. Famous for progressive road advertising signs, see 1925-1963.
3. After David Foster Wallace; observation due to Hovav Shacham.
4.159/6 is also a translation, but the primary purpose of the note is to point us at Quilty.
5. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.
6. Given the particular nature of many of these allusions, it might make sense to mark Quilty references with a symbol rather than a number.
7. But of course this creates a hierarchy that's fixed in the text. This is sort of inherent in the fact that things are printed on paper, unless you want to have them printed in color/somehow plane polarize and wear filters on your glasses or something.
8. None of this applies to a book like Pale Fire where the notes are part of the text; Shacham again.
9. Note that you could also use colors, but many e-paper displays, such as the Kindle, don't have color displays, and since such a small fraction of the text will be color, this would add significantly to the cost of goods.


Not that I'm adding anything to this post, but I lived in Evansville for 12 years - the concrete monkey ship is still there in the Mesker Park Zoo, though it's not an animal attraction anymore. Still fun to see though. There's actually a plaque in the zoo noting that it's mentioned in the book.

That plaque needs to be annotated to mention that it is mentioned in an annotation to the book.

I despise endnotes.

I suppose that the more crucial notes could be footnotes and the trivial endnotes.

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