This is kind of old news, but way back last week I read The Devil's Details: A History of Footnotes by Chuck Zerby. When I bought this book, through a catalog, I didn't really look at it, and I thought it was Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig. So, I'm not always a careful reader, the book was only three dollars either way, and I'm an impulsive book buyer. As soon as I got the book in the mail and looked at it, I realized this was a totally different topic. And yet, this author is similarly obsessed. But with footnotes.
I never thought that much about footnotes before, although I've always liked them much more than endnotes. If I see the little number or asterisk or cross on the page, I'm going to have to check out what it refers to. If that is all the way in the back of the book and ends up just being a citation, I'll be sad. If its right there on the same page, you just have to jump your eyes down and your curiosity is satisfied. Zerby agrees with me on this.
He goes into the history of the footnote, with a focus on its use in books about history and in poetry. He makes a good case for the footnote's ability to give the reader a break from formal prose, to hide sometimes controversial or potentially censored comments, and to generally act as an entirely different mode of communication within a single text.
Apparantly the real downfall of the footnote has been publishers. They don't like laying them out, they don't like the extra space, and they think the general reader is not going to read something with a footnote. Which might be true.
But I think general readers would like them better if they were more prevalant, and not relegated to academic texts that no one wants to read anyway. Bring back the footnote! But not in a snotty postmodern, ironic, self-referential way. Bring it back because it really serves a purpose that no other writing tool can provide*.