Bookmark – “The Chapter: A History”

The Venerable Bede working on his translation

Nicholas Dames’s readable New Yorker piece presents telling episodes in the history of authors’ use of the chapter in non-fictional and fictional works — from Cato the Elder, Pliny, the Venerable Bede, Caxton, Fielding, Gissing and others.

Latin capitulum, Spanish capítulo, French chapitre, Czech kapitola, German Kapitel, Romanian capitol, Italian capitolo, English chapter: is it anything different in the digital age? The page can “disappear”, scrolling down a window, replaced by a percentage of book completed. What about the chapter?

The following paragraph from Dames is telling when juxtaposed with the final chapters of Amaranth Borsuk’s The Book (MIT Press, 2018), which brings to bear on the history of the book and its elements the perspective of an artist; reviewed here.

Like the momentary lifting of a pianist’s fingers while a chord still resonates, the classic novelistic chapter evokes time by dwelling in a pause rather than a strong ending. We feel time in the novel by marking it out into bits, but only bits that have no strong shape, that fade or blur into one another in the recollection. The greatest practitioners of the chapter have preferred to cast their divisions as fleeting caesuras with lingering aftereffects, scarcely memorable in their specifics but tenacious in the feeling they evoke. (italics added) Situations yielding silently to new configurations, feelings fading imperceptibly or stealing upon us, shifts in the atmosphere around us: time in the novel is made up of these chromatic transitions, and the usual name for them in the history of the form is the chapter. 

Nicholas Dames, “The Chapter: A History“, The New Yorker, 29 October 2014

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