Whether read on scrolls, leaves, pages, napkins or computer screens, every reader needs to take a break now and again. Perhaps, before the art of punctuation was invented, the ancient readers approached texts intuitively and paused where it suited them. Perhaps they were bad at this and that’s why punctuation was invented.
A period is a nice place to take a breath. But what about stopping for the night? Bookmarks only work to an extent. Chapters are much more congenial, showing that the writer is in agreement with the reader and that the book must, at some point, be set on the nightstand and the light shut off (depending on the kind of reader you are—Some people blaze bleary-eyed through a book and come out the other side of the morning tired at work or school or gym).
But are chapters not a little tyrannical, too? It is by them that the author tells you how to read the book. But then, one could argue, punctuation does much the same. Language tells us how to think just as thoughts tell us how to speak.
The chapter, as a convention, seems to arise precisely from the means by which the book is published. In the nineteenth century, it was common for books to be published in journals. It was conducive to the medium that one chapter fit easily within the binding. It was usually meant to be consumed in one sitting like a television show today.
How does one chapter a book? How does one break a chapter up? Titles of chapters varied. You could do like Dickens and go with a simple Chapter One or Chapter 1. Or, simply, One. The minimalism of 1 has its appeal; it forces fewer presuppositions on the text. The more ambitious writers title their chapters like poets do poems. The latter-period Dostoyevsky resorted to the comical habit of titling chapters things like
in which a character, at some point in the chapter, utters the phrase, ‘You lie!’
Dostoyevsky in particular, along with a great many others of the journal-driven variety, wrote books featuring dozens and dozens of short chapters whose breaks would, by today’s breaking standards, seem wholly arbitrary. Every once in a while, the cliffhanger would take effect and an unexpected guest would walk into the room. The next chapter would immediately feature a description of the unexpected guest’s face or some exciting news he had to offer. Then other chapters would simply find their place between two pieces of dialogue, as if to trick the reader into a sort of maieutic excitement.
With Beckett and Joyce, we reach an immensely unjournalistic kind of novel. The chapters are books in themselves, written as though to be consumed in one sitting though this is often impossible.
A book like Gaddis’s JR,which plays with the theme of communication, is not split up by any chapters in the entirety of its 700 odd pages. Rather, the ‘breaks’ are densely written vignettes between bits of exhaustive dialogue which act as mechanisms to transition one scene and set of characters to another—the book being a series of literary French Scenes.
Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, though divided up more conventionally, is by no means conventionalwithin the chapter. In a chapter of this book, years might pass or days might pass, or perhaps a single meal which then turns into a meal months later. The second of two famous party scenes in the book runs to about 85 pages, making up the entirety of a chapter. Upon my second reading of the book, I realized with great amazement, after spending several hours on these 85 pages, that I was taking as much time on this party chapter as I would an actual party—a chapter written in real time.
For some writers, chapter breaks are merely something cumbersome to fit in. Certain long-winded writers of epics are always itching anxiously for the place they can finally end their thought so that they can go on to the next. For other writers, the chapter is a source of salvation—a means to switch first-person perspectives or a means to include a little aside or to issue a complete narrative rupture.
William T. Vollmann used fake chapters as a plot device in You Bright and Risen Angels by listing the names of unwritten chapters to give the reader an idea of what events take place after the actual book finishes.
The Adventures of Augie March allowed itself all the voluptuous tendencies of the old big European books to ruminate on some philosophical idea at the beginning and endings of its chapters, though the chapters themselves are quite long.
The Bible was chaptered and versed long after its writing. Perhaps writers who prefer to practice their craft off-the-cuff with no mind for cutting their work into marketable, bit-sized baby pieces would prefer the same for their own work.
Others make an art of it. Often, the structure of a book may be determined by the way its chapters come falling out of the book like cards with so many clues on them.Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship has a curious beginning. Several short chapters comprise one meal as Wilhelm tells his loved ones about his memories of puppeteeing with his peers as a child. These little pulsing spurts of story, broken up so frequently, were perhaps meant to act as a little selah in an introduction not labeled something so marketable, like ‘Prologue.’ It is asubterraneousintroduction, implied in the tone and pace of the text. As Goethe’s chapters get longer and longer, the fragmented story of puppeteering from the beginning suddenly struck me, while reading, as a strange memory, almost as though I was trying to recall a dream. I was able to recall all of the different, subtle shifts in perspective that this method of splicing awarded, which colored my view of the hero and how he acted for the longer stretches of text later in the book.
If pausing is also about reflection, it is little wonder that we impose a book-like structure to our own lives. How often, when speaking of changes, do we ‘open a new chapter?’ The forms of life and the condition of the universe have, perhaps, already planted the chapter-structure in our minds. Are the seasons not chapters? Are hours not scenes? Are our lives not stories from which we would like to take a break now and again so that we might reflect on what they mean before entering them again? Perhaps the similarity is a bit unfair. With life, we don’t have the luxury of re-reading any of the chapters.