Reading While Moving or Why I Hate Endnotes

I am a woman on the brink.  Just barely back from the dark side of a move.  There are still 4 boxes upstairs that may not be unpacked for some time (YA literature my kids aren't ready for, and we don't have shelf space for), and I'm still not convinced I like where the dining room table is sitting.  But I am beginning to return to life, which means work and reading.  Right after the TBRs went into my closet/sanctuary/office, I perused as though they were all new again and chose the next read.  The problem is that I chose a book that was a poor fit for my easily-distracted mind: Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room.

I've always been a quiet fan of Woolf's, as many women who read are.  I had the great fortune of taking a class on Conrad, Woolf, and Joyce during a summer term at Cambridge.  I have read many of the most popular works and have her collected essays and diaries on my TBR shelf.  The Indigo Girls song "Virginia Woolf" is one of my favorites.  But Jacob's Room is not captivating me.  I am impressed by it.  I am intrigued by the concept.  I even have passages - beautiful, intelligent, otherwordly passages - underlined in it.  But I do not want to keep reading it.  It is not compelling me.

Jacob's Room is a complex narrative that centers around a mostly absent or invisible main character, Jacob.  Woolf is playing with perspective, relationship, and personhood through the varied and variable depictions of Jacob from boyhood (seen mostly through the eyes of his mother) through adulthood (seen from many angles).  I am only about halfway through, so Jacob still remains shadowy - as he perhaps might for the duration.  And while the concept is challenging, thought-provoking, and alive, the narrative is dragging horribly for me.

I blame the endnotes.

I hate endnotes.  I don't know why exactly although I have some suspicions.  One reason could be that much like my inability to discard a book I haven't read yet or am not enjoying reading, I have an extremely difficult time ignoring the notes.  Footnotes aren't so bad because I can easily glance down to see if the notation is merely a citation or a reference to some compelling bit of information that will ease and inform my reading.  But endnotes require me to keep the page handy and flip to the end of the book and back again just to see how relevant the note is.  And most of the time, the note is completely unhelpful and thoroughly disruptive to my reading.

For instance, during a predictably confusing passage of fragmented conversation and description, we get a note.  I flip to it, hoping I might get some explanation for what is going on or some greater meaning to all the noise and confusion.  Instead, I get a note that explains Woolf observed (and recorded in a letter to her sister), a similar scene in a noisy restaurant in London.  Really?  You needed to tell me that the author pulled an example of something she observed in real life into her fiction?  That's astonishing!

Of course, I understand the academic scholarship reasons for such a note.  It is interesting to find correlatives between the fiction and personal writing of an acclaimed author.  However, it contributes nothing to my reading of the novel.  In fact, it interrupts my reading and causes me to continually question my ability to interpret the work appropriately.  The notes make me feel there is some right answer out there, and I need to constantly be checking my answer against the key. 

I will finish Jacob's Room, and I hope those shining examples of Woolf's great skill can overcome my frustration with the act of reading this text.  Perhaps, I could binder-clip the notes pages together.  If I make it harder to get to them, maybe I could finally ignore them and just read.


  1. I am a HUGE fan of Woolf (not a particularly quiet one either!), but I also admire Jacob's Room more than I actually enjoy it. :-/ Seems to me like she was pushing very hard toward the plateau that she hit in the next few books, and I can feel the struggle in JR in a way I don't when I read Mrs. Dalloway. It does raise a lot of interesting questions about what makes a "character" and to what extent we can know one another...but yeah, not as amazing to read as some of her others, in my opinion.

  2. Yes! I'm very aware of her effort in this one, and though I really admire that effort, the self-consciousness is a bit hard to take. It's almost as if she needed to return to this novel later with a more mature eye and make it what she really wanted it to be.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with your reasoning behind your dislike of endnotes. I remember an English professor once suggested that students who had a problem with endnotes buy two copies of the book - one to keep open to the page they are reading, and the other to correspond to the endnotes from that page. I thought it was the silliest thing I ever heard, to buy two books simply to read the endnotes. All of our problems would be solved if publishers just stuck to footnotes.

    Great post, Sara.