Illustration of book being opened by a key, and with a stream of numbers and symbols springing out of it.

The best footnotes in books

Small and buried at the bottom of the page, footnotes are hidden treasures that can enhance your understanding and enjoyment of a text. Here are just some of our favourties.

The footnote: it’s an often innocuous, easily ignorable piece of text that graces the bottom of a page. It is, for many people, associated with writing essays at school or university, or with reading something academic or scientific.

But the footnote is, if you give it a chance, a treasure trove, opening you to a new world. A footnote adds information or commentary, and while it’s not strictly essential to your enjoyment of a book, it can add to your understanding of a character or subject.

The best footnotes are stories in themselves – whether they’re appearing in fiction or non-fiction – and they’re maybe a little gossipy or pointed, and they’re definitely sharp as a tack.

Here, the team shares our favourites. 

Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera (2021)

In Empireland, Sathnam Sanghera takes a look at the legacy of imperialism, and the things we have and do that are down to the British Empire. It is, by its very nature, a book that is often quite critical of Britain’s past and, occasionally, its present. That criticism is sometimes not received by people graciously, who like to tell Sanghera to leave the UK if he’s so ungrateful. 

And so, Sanghera pre-empts this response in the book with a footnote that says he is “actually grateful for a great deal”.

“And because the accusation will inevitably be levelled at me, I might as well spell out what I am grateful for,” he writes. What follows is a list that includes free education, British pop music, the countryside and Pizza Express."

It’s a funny note, at least to start. But it has a deeper point about how being told to be grateful is extremely racist. Sanghera writes: “But I resent being instructed to demonstrate my gratitude whenever I analyse any aspect of British life, when my white colleagues don’t get the same treatment.”

Chosen by Sarah Shaffi, managing editor

Hollywood’s Eve by Lili Anolik (2019)

It’s fitting that Lili Anolik’s somewhat gonzo biography of Eve Babitz should have such good footnotes, because Babitz’s life had become a footnote of Hollywood history until it was written. The American journalist, groupie and author had the kind of life that films are based on: a child who grew up surrounded by artists and musicians who became a teenager that played chess, naked, with Marchel Duchamp out of revenge and ended up bedding most of 1960s Los Angeles – then writing about it better than anyone else. Had Babitz been a man, she would have been as deified as Hunter S Thompson – but she wasn’t, and so she was forgotten.

As for Anolik’s best footnote? It’s a tough choice – they are all gossipy, personal and fun – but I enjoy the final one of the book most, in which Babitz and her sister try to ascertain the origin of a photobooth shot. It was taken the day she flew to the offices of feminist magazine Ms in New York. “I came in wearing platform shoes and a floppy hat, and they said, ‘You’re obviously trying to attract men.’ [recalled Babitz] They hated me! And they hated me even more when I turned in a piece about how great it is to have big tits.”

Chosen by Alice Vincent, features editor 

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker (2020)

Maybe it’s a Virgo thing, but since I was young, I’ve been incredibly methodical about nearly every aspect of my life: I have strong preferences for, say, which dishes a lemon complements versus a lime; and if a book on my bookshelf has been moved, I will notice. So it was with great relish that I devoured The Mezzanine, a short novel by Nicholson Baker in which the author narrates the minute upspoken thoughts of a man on his work lunch break, mostly – almost primarily, even – through footnotes.

Nothing happens, really; our narrator purchases lunch and a new pair of shoelaces, and rides the office escalator. But it’s the intimacy, banality and precision of his thoughts throughout his hour-long break – which meander from the small victories (perforation!) and tragedies (hand-dryers!) of Capitalist progress, to the quirks of office life and the small, time-passing games he plays in his head – that provide the book’s beating heart. If you’ve ever wondered whether your own mental footnote might be worth sharing – say, your irritation about how plastic straws rise out of fizzy drinks – The Mezzanine is your hilarious, affirmative answer.

Chosen by Stephen Carlick, associate editor

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (2013)

I don’t think it would be understating it to say that Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians books got me through the early stages of pandemic life. This satirical trilogy follows a sprawling web of three ultra-wealthy, interconnected Chinese Singaporean families and those around them. With the story featuring the institutions and customs that matter, as well as phrases in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and Singlish throughout, the plentiful footnotes aren’t just witty interjections but a necessary explainer offering further context for those of us unfamiliar with, well, any of it. If you’re thinking the footnotes sound like they could be a bit dry, perhaps they might be if it weren’t for the vivacious and hilarious tone that makes them so great. If I ever found myelf amongst this particular strata of Chinese Singaporean society, the person behind the footnotes is who I’d want with me, offering a steady stream of positive affirmations mixed with all the latest gossip.

Chosen by Indira Birnie, senior marketing manager

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Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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