Friday, October 24, 2008

What is a Chapbook?

notes towards an essay on culture and the distribution of poetry
The term “chapbook” came into regular use among speakers of English in the late eighteenth century in order to designate a small book containing ballads, poems, tales or tracts. It was typically sold from town to town by a “chapman”, or traveling merchant, and could be easily carried among other portable wares. For centuries, the chapbook was, and perhaps still is, the form of print publication most easily obtained by a large or growing literate population in modern, industrializing cultures. It usually consists of a single signature of text, bound in a paper slightly heavier than its interior pages, and optimally results in a book of 32 to 40 pages in length. A “signature” is a single set of pages folded and separately bound. Most hardbound books are a collection of signatures stacked one atop the other and sewn together and covered in a much harder material (like cardboard, but sometimes wood) which is either glued or sewn to the signatures. Today most chapbooks are based on a set of 6-10 sheets of letter-sized paper folded in half and stapled. The term octavo is typically used for this size of a book (5.5” X 8.5”), since it means a standard sized sheet of printer's paper has been folded three times. The first fold is called a folio (fold) and is usually the size used for a single page of a newspaper. Fold this sheet again and you have the quatro size. Larger books, like photography, art books and graphic novels, come in quatro size. On the third fold, the original sheet is now divided into eight sections—octavo (2X2X2). The term duodecimo is usually used for anything smaller than octavo, since now the number of pages created from the original sheet has hit the double digits (like 16). Of course, the size of the printer’s sheet varies from place to place, which provides for a range of sizes for each of these terms folio, quatro, octavo, and duodecimo.

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