WHAT DO COMPUTER manuals and serious non-fiction have in common? Both carry instructions written by people who have no concept of the first-time user.
I’ll spare you the horrors of trying to renew my Norton Anti-Virus 2004. Suffice it to say that, having followed all the downloading commands, all I understand is that I am to be billed A42.54, with no certainty that I am protected from the much-dreaded My Doom Virus. But I am far more sympathetic to cyber-babble – the Internet is complicated and where would we be without it? – than to the impenetrable apparatus between which historians, biographers and other heavyweight writers sandwich their texts.
Top of my hate list are authors (and their edtors) who use chapter titles as running heads without identifying the chapter’s number. Thus, to pick just one example, Einstein in Love, the book’s title, is the running head on the left-hand page, and ‘The Last Waltz’ at the top of the right-hand page. Looking up a note is never fun, but suppose you really want to know the source of Einstein’s declaration to his mistress, ‘I treat my wife like an employee whom I can’t fire’? Muttering aloud ’33’ so that you won’t forget the number of the note, you wedge your thumb between pages 260 and 261 and turn to the back of the book. But lo! The notes appear, divided neatly from Chapter 1 to Chapter 21, but without chapter headings. Which chapter is ‘The Last Waltz’?
Back you turn to page 260, to no avail. The ’employee’ quote lies in the middle of the chapter in question. Flipping backwards, you go through 12 pages before learning that it is Chapter 18. Thus fortified, you return to Chapter 18’s endnotes on pages 396-7. If you are clever, you will have remembered that it is note 33 of Chapter 18 you are researching, and you will get your reward: ‘Ibid’. Fair enough. The previous note identifies the letter as Albert Einstein to Elsa, Dec 27, 1913, CP [Collected Papers] Vol 5. Alternatively, you can simply say the hell with it and throw the book across the room.
Only slightly friendlier is the style of book in which the chapter number is affixed beside the chapter title – but only in the endnotes. Ira Nadel’s Double Act: A hi of Tom Stoppard reports Stoppard telling the actor Michael Hordern before the premiere of jumpers that he had wondered whether the play was going to be ‘simply dreadful’. This quote (in the chapter called ‘Swinging from an Epigram’) is referenced to note 53. There is no chapter number in the running head. Turning to the notes, you find that, while the chapters are identified by number as well as by name, the book has so many chapters that much time passes before ‘Chapter 9 Swinging From an Epigram’ comes into view. A three-page trawl through is needed before Hordern’s autobiography appears as the source.
Many publishers, of course, prefer to avoid numbered notes in the text. ‘It makes the book look so academic,’ they moan. So the author gives in and identifies quoted material in the notes by either the first or the last words in each quoted phrase. It’s left to the reader to guess which, and effort is not always rewarded. When Caroline Moorehead in Gellhorn quotes Hemingway chiding Martha Gellhorn for her aversion to children, ‘You write about them so well and so poignantly and don’t give a goddam about them’, the sources cited for page 198 identify two other quotations but I couldn’t find this one.
There is only one right way to deal with endnotes. The top of each page of textual references at the back of the book should declare ‘Notes to Paszes 177-80’ or whatever U pages are covered. Then the chapter titles can be as long or as whimsical as the author chooses. This is the merciful method adopted in such blockbusters as Hugh Thomas’s Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire. To trace a note, you have to do is look at the number of the page you are reading. This formula is so obviously helpful that I can’t see why it is not standard practice.
Heading the sources usually are the codes with which V to decipher them. called Abbreviations. Sometimes the codes are numerical, with each reference as closely packed with information as a microdot. And you cannot imagine, if you have not tried, the variety of ways to abbreviate the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Should it be ‘HRC’, ‘UT’ or ‘Texas’?
Bibliographies are another thicket. If only they all were ‘Selective’. But many show off, listing every book ever published on the subject. Carol Shloss’s Lucia Joyce devotes twenty-three pages to listing books by and about James Joyce.
Reaching these exercises at the back of the book suggests that you have got through it. But maybe you, like me, can be halted before you get that far, by a soppy dedication such as, ‘To Elaine who has put up with my being digital for exactly 11111 years’ (Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab). Another early trap lies in the Acknowledgements. Like the Court Page announcement of a memorial service, these exercises in name-dropping can also be read to show who stayed away.
Everyone knows the complaint that non-fiction books are getting longer. This charge is unfair. Archives are richer. more varied and accessible than ever. Authors have to identify their sources to show that they didn’t make it all up. But do they realise that difficult apparatus deadens the smooth flow of their prose? Obviously not.