eBook Annotations Should Be Optional

Having just finished Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” — a book which in two typical pages produces the words: “squailed,” “vadose,” “bated” (not in it’s normal sense), “terra damnata,” “carreta,” “monocline,” “sleared,” “rebozos,” “fusil,” and “clackdish” — I have an opinion on this post from O’Reilly on eBook Annotations

The only thing worse than having no annotations in a difficult text is having annotations: I hated those overly-footnoted texts of Shakespeare and the classics that combined actually interesting footnotes with constant vocabulary (the meaning of “terra damnata” is obvious and if “fusil” reminds you of “fusilier”…).

On the other hand, I wouldn’t at all mind some kind of annotation and analysis to accompany a challenging work like this. eBooks actually have the opportunity to have the finest user experience possible: allowing a spectrum of annotations (from vocabulary to book-summing essays) to be shown, or not, wholly under the user’s control.

If you just show all the links at all times, then the reader never knows the difference between “Footnote 538: A type of flower” and “Footnote 539: This is considered the central passage of the text…”

4 thoughts on “eBook Annotations Should Be Optional

  1. Kindle already gets this right, I think, at least for definitions; you can quickly and easily look up any word in the built-in dictionary, which seems to be fairly comprehensive. You can fairly easily drop back to the full web no matter where you are, something which is more location-dependent on Nook and iPad.

    For non-definition annotations, footnotes or a reader’s guide would work. But I agree about Shakespeare. Apparently people tend to buy the edition with the most annotations, so publishers try and outdo each other.

  2. The best use of footnotes I’ve ever seen is in a book called Fitzpatrick’s War.

    The book itself is an “alternate future history”. Basically in the future electricity doesn’t work, they go back to steam power and there’s a global war. One of the major players in the war, before his death, writes a personal memoir about his experience of it. That’s the book. But it’s also annotated by a “highly regarded scholar” over a hundred years later and that idea adds an amazing dimension so the book.


  3. @Craig: I like the Kindle’s UX, but desperately wish for (a) foreign language dictionaries and (b) the ability to “load” a custom dictionary or set of annotations / study guide.

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