In the Garden of Clear References

This post is not a book review (although I’ll mention a particular book several times). I’ve come to appreciate that the integrity of book reviews on the Internet has been subverted to the point where most no longer have any validity. Even the honest reviews can’t be taken at face value, so the sad fact is that the good ones get thrown out with the bath water. But enough of that. What I want to write about briefly here is the value of clear references in published works.

Last month I read (and enjoyed) Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. I haven’t yet read his previous best seller (and award winner) The Devil in the White City, but it’s one of the rare books that I’ve heard nothing negative about (…I admit that I pay attention to what others say about books, but most influences come from friends and a few trusted reviewers, with little Internet input).

A quick summary of In the Garden of Beasts: it’s nonfiction, describing the lives of the US Ambassador to Germany and his daughter during the rise of the Nazis, especially from 1933 to 1937.The story is populated with a colorful and (sometimes lethal) cast of diplomats, socialites, and fascists, including spies, Gestapo agents, and the highest ranking members of the Nazi party (the highest). Larson uses a large number of previously unexploited primary sources, and does a very good job of adding both life and suspense to the story. There are a few things I found disappointing about the book…but I’ll stress again that this isn’t a book review, so I won’t go into detail. Overall, this is a book that’s worth the time it takes to read, and it will be of special interest to those interested in the political and diplomatic (and even the sociocultural) history of the 1930s.

Because Larson’s book is so well researched, he made the decision to document his sources using extensive notes. He chose endnotes over footnotes — a superior decision for a book of this kind (popular nonfiction). If anyone who reads this post goes on to read the book, I highly recommend that you at least skim the endnotes: most of them are dry and strictly for proper documentation, but Larson uses a good number of them to add interesting tidbits of information that don’t fit cleanly into his narrative; he’s also chosen to bury all of the Nazi jokes in the endnotes, and some of them are hilarious.

When I teach expository writing, I spend a lot of time on documentation and citation. Most of my students would probably tell you that I spend far too much time on documentation and citation: in a 15 week class, meeting for about 30 hours in a semester, all or part of roughly 5 hours is dedicated to documentation and citation. It’s a lot, but it’s necessary: even with this overdose of material, it’s the rare student who completely satisfies my documentation and citation requirements. (It’s important to point out that I don’t spend 5 hours on endnotes: over this period of time we work on quotation, paraphrasing, summary, in-text citation, and the sometimes painful details of MLA — occasionally APA — works cited formats. Footnotes and endnotes are, in reality, not much more than a footnote themselves when MLA format is the focus: MLA recommends avoiding footnotes and endnotes whenever possible.)

The major style guides each handle notes differently. The MLA handbook focuses on in-text citation and has for some time recommended not using notes, except in special circumstances (I believe since the fourth edition in the early ’90s, but don’t quote me). APA style still makes use of footnotes, but it seems to be slowly shifting toward in-text citation as the primary method. Chicago (which I’ve never taught but am familiar with) is the only one of the big three style guides that spends much time on footnotes and endnotes. The different styles have different applications: in-text citation is a better solution for most academic work and for shorter pieces, while endnotes often are superior for work with a mass audience.

In the Garden of Beasts uses endnotes extensively, and when I first skimmed them they didn’t seem to adhere to a particular published style. They were close to Chicago, but not strictly in the format I knew. Here’s an example (“342” and “343” are not note numbers here, but page numbers):

342 “attacking me violently”: Dodd, Diary, 371.
343 “My position is difficult”: Ibid., 372.

In the strict Chicago format known to me, these notes would have looked more like this:

12. Dodd, Diary, 371.
13. Ibid., 372.

It took me a little page flipping to understand what was being done here. It turns out that the style used by Larson (or his publisher) is in fact a documented variant of Chicago style (described fully in section 14.48). While strict Chicago style endnotes would follow the second set of examples above, in “books intended for a more general audience” the format used in the first set is acceptable. As the guide says, “…it may be desirable to omit note numbers in the text. …notes may then be keyed to the text by line or page number…usually followed by the word or phrase being annotated.” (CMS, 678)

That’s exactly what’s going on here. But even if Larson’s notes had not been in a widespread “acceptable” format, I wouldn’t have criticized, for one important reason:

These notes were clear and the references were easy to connect!

When I teach MLA citation, I have to be strict: learning the correct format is a requirement of the class. If students don’t get their citation formats correct — every jot and tittle — they’ll get marked down (albeit very slightly for each jot and a little less for the tittles). But despite that rigid approach, the two messages I most strongly try to drive home are that (1) all sources must be documented and (2) citations need to provide the reader with the necessary information to locate the cited text in the original source.

Citation formats have been developed to allow academic authors to do these things efficiently. In MLA citation, for example, each in-text citation will direct the reader to a page number in a source on the Works Cited page; the Works Cited listing provides the full title of the work and enough author or editor information to uniquely identify the source. Additional information (publisher, media type, publication date) is also included, both to enhance that unique identification and to ensure that proper credit is given.

In a book for that “more general audience,”citation requirements are not always as rigorous. But they can be (and often should be). Larson cited his sources well and whether or not he used a standard format, his citations accomplish what they need to: they give proper credit to the original sources and allow an interested reader to locate each cited passage in the original source.

That’s one more reason to give good marks to Larson’s book (have I mentioned that this post is not a book review?).

Properly cite and document your sources, folks. Use the format best suited to the type of publication or the style you’re working in and always give credit where credit is due.

= = = = =

I resisted letting any notes attach themselves to this post, but this is too good to not share: Erik Larson found a way to have fun with his own footnotes. That, or he was spending too much time with them and crossed the line into madness.


About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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