The Chapter: A History.

Back in 2014, Nicholas Dames wrote a New Yorker essay about something we generally take for granted, the division of books into chapters:

The first authors who wrote in chapters were not storytellers. They were compilers of knowledge, either utilitarian or speculative, who used chapters as a way of organizing large miscellanies. Cato the Elder’s “De Agri Cultura” (“On Farming”), from the second century B.C.E., was organized in numbered units with titles; Pliny the Elder’s great compilation of Roman science, “Naturalis Historia” (“Natural History”), from the first century C.E., came with a summarium of topics similar to a modern table of contents; Aulus Gellius, a collector of legal and linguistic arcana in the second century C.E., divided his “Noctes Atticae” (“Attic Nights”) into “capita” with long descriptive titles. These chapters, unlike the “books” of epic poetry, were what we would now call finding aids: devices for quickly locating specific material in long texts that were not meant to be read straight through.

[…] The chapter might have disappeared in favor of some other form had not the early Fathers of the Church made it their signature technique. Jerome, in fact, seems to have been the first to unambiguously use the term capitulum to refer to a numbered, titled segment of a text.

He goes on to describe the (perhaps apocryphal) division of the Bible into chapters by Stephen Langton in the early decades of the thirteenth century, then turns to novelists:

Hard as it may be to imagine now, the modern novel, as it emerged in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe, often treated the chapter gingerly, as a strange oddity in need of explanation. The reason is not particularly mysterious. As a technique, designed for information-seeking or scholarly citation, the chapter is a peculiar fit with a narrative form that presumes a continuous, serial reading. When editors like William Caxton divided texts like Thomas Malory’s “Morte d’Arthur” into chapters, as he did in his 1485 edition, it was largely to permit readers to choose which moments of the story could be applied to particular moral teachings. Later still, Renaissance prose romances had no need of chapters. Why should novels? […]

Novels have always been good at absorbing and recycling, taking plots and devices from other genres and finding new uses for them. With the chapter, novelists began, in the eighteenth century, to naturalize an informational technology from antiquity by giving it a new cultural role. What the chapter did for the novel was to aerate it: by encouraging us to pause, stop, and put the book down—a chapter before bed, say—the chapter-break helps to root novels in the routines of everyday life. The chapter openly permitted a reading oriented around pauses—for reflection or rumination, perhaps, but also for refreshment or diversion. Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy” insisted that “chapters relieve the mind,” encouraging our immersion by letting us know that we will soon be allowed to exit and return to other tasks or demands. Coming and going—an attention paid out rhythmically—would become part of how novelists imagined their books would be read.

For philosophers and theologians of the time, chapters were an example of a wider cultural dilemma. Among others, John Locke made it a habit to lament the way Bibles came so elaborately subdivided, destroying the thread of argument or narrative and producing readers who remembered sentences rather than concepts. For novelists, however, this was a boon. Like our days, chapters are rarely coherently memorable (Can even the most dedicated readers recollect a particular chapter of “Middlemarch” or “War and Peace”?), but are fractured, interrupted installments. Even in the midst of great events we stop and rest, and not necessarily after significant conclusions or turning points.

Thus the novelistic chapter: that modest, provisional kind of closure, a pause that promises more of the same later, like the fall of night. As the modern novel developed, explanations like those of the Fieldings became less necessary. Chapter titles themselves lost their overt connection to the “in which” or “concerning” syntax, virtually a plot summary, which derived from Biblical capitula. […]

Of course, the chapter could also become a subject of play, well beyond the self-conscious mentions in eighteenth-century novels. Everyone will have different favorites; I am particularly fond of Ronald Firbank’s “Inclinations,” whose twentieth chapter reads, in its entirety:

      Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!

      Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!

The Russian equivalent of “Mabel! Mabel! Mabel! Mabel!” is the famous ninth chapter of Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva-Petushki: “И немедленно выпил.” [‘And I immediately had a drink.’] (The author explains in his preface that this had originally been followed by a page and a half of obscenities, but he had thought it better to cut them all out so that no readers would be offended, “especially young ladies.”)

I don’t know how I missed the Dames piece four years ago, but fortunately a reader called it to my attention: thanks, jack!

Addendum. Anatoly Vorobey was so intrigued by the “Mabel! Mabel!” chapter that he wound up reading the whole book; even if you don’t read Russian, it’s worth scrolling down to see the piquant quotes. (He found it amusing, but not amusing enough to read more Firbank.)


  1. “There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.”

  2. Hmm! Fascinating piece.

    (perhaps apocryphal) division of the Bible into chapters

    So before C13th (allegedly), ‘to give Chapter and Verse’ was not a thing? That seemed always such an essential part of a reading or sermon in a church service.

  3. There were other systems competing with Langton’s (or pseudo-Langton’s), notably the divisions used in the 9C Tours MS “Bible of Rorigo”. Older systems exist, the oldest still in use being the 54 chunks into which the Torah is divided so that at the rate of one chunk per Sabbath it is read completely in a year, after which (like painting the Brooklyn Bridge) it is begun again. An older system used 154 chunks and ran for three years.

    Verses have a similar story. The verse divisions in the Christian Old Testament correspond (with a few exceptions) to sentences or short runs of sentences separated by a sof pasuq (׃) in the Masoretic Text going back to the 10C or earlier. The standard numbering of New Testament verses began with Robert Estienne in 1551; as with the chapters, there were older systems, now obsolete. In Jewish Bibles, the attributions and musical indications in the Psalms (“Selah” being the best known) are numbered with the rest, whereas Christian Bibles leave them unnumbered. The chapter boundaries are also a bit discrepant in a few places.

  4. Ken Miner says:

    A different thing — chapters in novels. Our contemporary writers of crime fiction, I notice (being something of a fan thereof), have taken to shortening chapters to the point of meaninglessness — sometimes to just a few pages — I presume because readers tend to tire (?) when confronted with a long chapter ahead of them. I grab one at random, Michael Connelly’s The Closers, paperback ed., 447 pages, 44 chapters, ave. about 10 pp/chapter. There are more extreme examples but I can’t put my hand on one at the moment.

  5. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I mentioned a novel by David Foenkinos recently. I’ve now been reading a different one (Je vais mieux) about a man who wakes up one day with severe backache, which last for several weeks. About half the chapters are just ordinary chapters, but the others consist of two lines each, something like Level of pain: 9. Mental state: very depressed.

  6. January First-of-May says:

    I’m not familiar with the Mabel chapter, but it reminded me of chapter XI of Through the Looking Glass, named Waking, which reads, in its entirety, “——and it really was a kitten, after all.”

    (The preceding chapter X, Shaking, is somewhat longer – by which I mean that it is two sentences long.)

    “There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.”

    Funnily enough, it is not the shortest chapter of the book it comes from – the chapter concerning owls is even shorter.

    Chapter titles themselves lost their overt connection to the “in which” or “concerning” syntax, virtually a plot summary

    Though it is still a thing that happens occasionally; in Sergey Bobrov’s Volshebnyy dvurog (Magical Bicorn), originally published in 1949, the titles of the chapters (or, rather, of the scholiae, for this is the term Bobrov uses) are extended so much that they regularly run to fifteen lines or more, and aren’t even necessarily especially good plot summaries.

    My favorite is probably the title of Scholia the Eleventh… which, firstly, is fairly long, and secondly, not especially simple, so the kind reader will need to exercise if not stubbornness, then at least considerable persistence, if he wants to further play the scholiae. However, without reading this scholia, there would generally be nothing more to read in this book. Therefore, one who wants to read past Scholia the Eleventh needs, as it is usually done, to spare some courage and first read past the tenth.
    And only after that does the actual plot description start (and proceed to go on for roughly as long as the part I tried to translate above).

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Short chapters:

    I think I wrote about this earlier: Many years ago when I was just beginning to read books in English with reasonable understanding, I came across one of Walter Scott’s novels (I forget which one). The chapters were of varying length, and I was especially struck by this one (I am using generic names here): The next day, (Robert) declared his love to (Mary Ann).

    The book was part of a series, all identically bound. Later I realized that the collection was probably directed at young boys and the “chapter” in question must be a summary of an actual chapter which such readers would have found totally boring.

  8. In Winnie-the-Pooh the chapter titles all begin “In which”, though none of them are all that long. At the other extreme, the chapter titles of Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage are (in order): Plane, Car, Headquarters, Briefing, Submarine, Miniaturization, Submergence, Entry, Artery, Heart, Capillary, Lung, Pleura, Lymphatic, Ear, Brain, Clot, Eye.

  9. Fantastic Voyage was one of the things I read that just seemed wrong somehow. The edition I read said that the story would soon be a major motion picture; it was only years later that I learned (from the Internet) that the book was actually a novelization of the film, and the novel only came out first due to production delays. The fact that the book was written by Asimov (who, unlike, say, Alan Dead Foster, was not known for writing adaptation of screenplays) probably added to the confusion. There were some very odd scenes, such as when the submarine was being miniaturized, which I eventually realized were written they were because they were following along precisely with what appeared on screen. (Asimov was, however, permitted to make significant changes to the story’s action, when it was necessary to plug the screenplay’s plot holes.)

    Another science fiction series with chapter titles that are just settings is the Well World novels by Jack Chalker. In Midnight at the Well of Souls and its (not recommended) sequels, there is a new chapter heading whenever the setting changes; and the titles are just descriptions of the settings, with an appropriate level of detail so that a reader who has gotten that far can tell where it is taking place. There does not seem to be any attempt to make the chapters even vaguely uniform in length, so they can range from a few paragraphs to tens of pages.

  10. When Chalker doesn’t want to say where the action happens, the chapter is entitled “Another part of the field”, clearly following the First Folio scene titles in Henry V 4:5-7.

    Chalker is a very particular taste, but I enjoy all of his Well World books, including in my reread last year. Caveat: Never trust what Nathan Brazil says. Note that the reading order is books 1-5 of the Well of Souls series, followed by books 1-3 of the Watchers at the Well series, followed by books 6-7 of the Well of Souls series. Publishers, bah.

    Alan Dead Foster


  11. Richard Hershberger says:

    “(Can even the most dedicated readers recollect a particular chapter of “Middlemarch” or “War and Peace”?)”

    Perhaps not, but devoted readers of The Lord of the Rings can.

  12. I was turned off by the fact that Exiles at the Well of Souls was the worst-edited major press novel I had ever read. The ultimate reason for that was that Chalker’s proposed sequel to Midnight was deemed too long, so it was split into two volumes, which were then too short. So the author wrote a bunch of additional material to pad them out. You can tell where the added introduction ends and the original manuscript begins, because the name of the planet they are on changes. There are some improvements in Quest for the Well of Souls, including attempts to explain away the plot inconsistencies (that must have been pointed out between the publications of the two parts).

  13. January First-of-May says:

    The third Porry Gatter book, Nine Feats of Sen Aesli (or, rather, Девять подвигов Сена Аесли), likes to experiment somewhat with its chapters and chapter titles; for example, Feat 8 consists of nine chapters, numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1, with the same-numbered chapters having the same titles (which happen to relate to the plot of both versions), while in Feat 7, the chapter titles repeat the last few words of the previous chapter (but, again, they always happen to also apply to the current plot), and Feat 6 uses the classic “in which” plot summary system.
    In Feat 1, however, the chapter titles are just settings, and change every time the setting changes… which comes out to something like every other page even at the calmer stretches (and more often than that when the plot picks up), and that part of the book has several dozen chapters just by itself. Many of those, in fact, have the same titles, because the settings repeat commonly.

    Also, fun fact: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books almost never divide into chapters… except in the Tiffany Aching series, where, IIRC, all the books do have chapters (and the semi-canon Science of Discworld series, which are forced to have chapters due to the way they are set up; and probably some of the assorted other tie-in books).
    IIRC, there’s one or two more exceptions, but I forgot which they are specifically.

  14. The chapter titles in The Name of the Rose are of the “In which…” type. However, it is pointed out in the (fictional) introduction that they must have been a later addition to the manuscript, since they refer to the narrator Adso in the third person.

  15. David L says:

    A modern book without chapters is Thomas Bernhard’s Extinction, which consists of two parts of a little more than 150 pages each, each part written not only without being broken up into chapters but also without any paragraphing, so that it’s hard to read the entire book except in two large gulps, as there is no obvious place in either part to take a break, and if you do take a break you have to find or invent some method to mark the place where you stopped and hope to pick up again, having remembered, you hope, what was going at the point you left off.

  16. Brett: Quite true. The true structure is Midnight, Exiles+Quest, Return+Twilight, Echoes+Shadow+Gods, Sea+Ghosts: a five-book series. It’s a pity that there’s no way legally to edit it back into that shape and republish it. There are even worse problems with the Four Lords of the Diamond, where the opening chapters are the same in each book, word for word. (However, I don’t think they would actually be worth fixing, though they are not on the level of Web of the Chozen for sheer anti-readability.) Overall I like The Devil Will Drag You Under best: it’s neither a series nor part of a splitup, and comes to a true and satisfying conclusion.

    The Tiffany Aching books are in chapter form for practical reasons: YA novels need to be chunked so that young readers can easily read them piece by piece (and teachers can assign them in the same way, though I don’t suppose that Pratchett is a “school author” in any anglophone country yet).

  17. The first time I read “War and Peace”, Chapter 9 of Book 4* was titled “Death of Lise”, which was such an annoying spoiler I almost slammed it shut.

    *I looked it up just now, to answer the rhetorical question

  18. That’s really quite appalling. Whoever is responsible for that titling should be ashamed. (The Russian doesn’t even have chapter titles, for Pete’s sake.)

  19. Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves is divided into three parts, called Against Stupidity…, …The Gods Themselves…, and …Contend In Vain? (an allusion to Schiller’s epigram in The Maid of Orleans). Each has a different chapter-numbering system. The first part begins with Chapter 6, which is interrupted by flashback chapters 1-5, leading to the enumeration 6, 1, 6 (continued), 2, 6 (continued), 3, 6 (continued), 4, 6 (continued), 5, 6 (concluded), 7, 8, …. The second part divides each portion of the story into three chapters told from the viewpoints of the three main characters of this part, Odeen, Dua, and Tritt, and are thus numbered 1a, 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 2c, …. The third part is numbered straightforwardly 1, 2, 3, ….

  20. Every edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that I have come across has chapter titles, but there does not seem to be any “official” versions of the titles. The first copy I read for school listed four to six different titles for each chapter. Even so, there was very little agreement between the titles in my copy and in the copies the other students had. A majority of the students in the class had books with one particular set of titles; those same titles were used across at least two or three different editions of the text. However, there were only a handful of chapters for which the most common titles were even among the several possible titles listed in my copy.

  21. Wittgenstein’s Mistress. THERE’S a novel with no chapters or section breaks of any kind.

  22. The first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, is divided into four sections. At that stage, Pratchett was directly parodying numerous other fantasy works, and the divisions help to separate out the parodies of different works. For example, the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser parody is in the first section, the Lovecraftian horror parody in the second, and the Dragonriders of Pern parody in the third. On the other hand, there are some parodies that span multiple sections, such as mentions of the Vancian magic spell that Rincewind accidentally memorized, or Pratchett’s first character parodying Conan the Barbarian.

    I seem to be very much in the minority, but I actually like The Colour of Magic much better than the subsequent, more developed, Discworld novels. It has the same comic brilliance, without any real attempt to give the book a coherent plot. Even in the best of the later books (such as Hogfather), the actual plot always strikes me as dull, going on far too long. I also really like Strata, which was written even before The Colour of Magic. It’s still got a lot of humor, but it is a very different kind of book from the Discworld stuff. it also has a much more engaging plot, in my opinion.

  23. The chapter titles in The Name of the Rose are of the “In which…” type.

    They’re actually titled according to the time period that the chapter covers. So the book is broken into “Prologue”, First Day”, “Second Day” and so on, and within that they’re called after the liturgical hours: Prime, Terce, After Compline and so on.

    But each chapter also has an “In which…” subtitle. And, to avoid spoilers, the climactic chapter is titled “In which, were it to summarise the prodigious revelations of which it speaks, the title would have to be as long as the chapter itself, contrary to usage”. Nicely done.

    Iain M. Banks’ “Use of Weapons” has a very peculiar structure; the book tells a main story in chronological order, in chapters numbered 1, 2, 3 and so on. But between each chapter is a flashback to before the main story starts, numbered in Roman numerals, and each flashback is further into the past than the previous one. So the chapter order as printed is something like 1, XVI, 2, XV, 3, XIV, 4, XIII and so on, telling a story that in internal chronology runs from chapters I to XVI and then 1 to 17.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    None of this is as weird as chapter titles that are spelled-out numbers: ONE, TWO, THREE…

  25. That doesn’t seem weird to me.

    Michener’s novel The Source is about the excavation of a tell in Israel, but the bulk of the book is made up of novellas set in each of the different levels of the excavation. Naturally level I is at the top, so the book’s chapters run backward from XV to I, with a bit of the frame story (“The Tell”) embedded among the chapters (between the chapters? between each consecutive pair of chapters? @#$* English).

  26. inter capitula

  27. Thanks!

  28. Back to the short chapters. I have read a humorous book about Canada, purportedly written to help recent immigrants to get acquainted with their new homeland, and it contained a chapter entitled How responsible government works with contents shorter than the title: It doesn’t. This devise extends to the whole political pamphlets. When Russia had a semblance of democracy back in 1990s, one of the parties participating in elections put forward a brochure titled “Achievements of [then prime-minister’s] government”, which contained no text otherwise. I am almost sure they stole the idea from more mature democracies.

  29. Perhaps not, but devoted readers of The Lord of the Rings can.


    Actually, one of my favorite memorable chapters comes from early in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, partly because the chapter had this wonderfully strange and (seemingly) nonsensical title — “Math Grenades” — and partly because by the end of the chapter, the title made perfect sense.

    Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has lots of very short (usually one or two pages) chapters whose numbers and titles are organized into an intricate scheme, with varying numerical progressions and regressions.

    Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books almost never divide into chapters …

    Since I happen to be re-reading Going Postal, I can point out that it, at least, does have chapters with titles and “in which …” subtitles. E.g.,

    Little Pictures
    The Postmen Unmasked — a terrible Engine — the New Pie — Mr Lipwig thinks about stamps — the Messenger from the Dawn of Time

  30. That’s the style Mark Twain uses in his (semi) non-fiction books like Life on the Missisippi:

    Swinging down the River.—Named for Me.—Plum Point again.
    —Lights and Snag Boats.—Infinite Changes.—A Lawless River.
    —Changes and Jetties.—Uncle Mumford Testifies.—Pegging the
    River.—What the Government does.—The Commission.—Men and
    Theories.—“Had them Bad.”—Jews and Prices.

  31. I believe that traditional Chinese novels (eg Dream of the Red Chamber) were divided into parts,
    each ending (in translation) “But to see what happened next, you will have to read the next chapter.”.
    This, to follow the custom of storytellers who used the phrase to indicate that it was time for the audience to put more money into the hat.

    This is not my area of expertise at all, and I look forward to being corrected!

  32. @John Cowan: I realize now that those were the kinds of titles listed in my copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They are found, for example, in the Project Gutenberg version. (I remember enough about the titles to recognize that some of the ones there are the same as what my book had, e.g. “A General Good Time.—The Harem.—French.”)

    The obvious question then becomes why there is another set of titles that are used in most modern printed versions of the book. The Wikisource version lists this set of titles. (Again, I recognize some specific ones.)

  33. I can’t give any definitive answer, but I note that there were two first publications: the UK in 1884, the U.S. a year later. In addition, there is a 2001 edition corrected against Twain’s original MS, which surfaced in 1990, but I have not seen this and don’t know which kind of titles it uses.

  34. Jim Parish says:

    I’ve always been amused by the first and last chapters of an SF novel I read around 1970. (I think it was Brunner’s _The Jagged Orbit_.) The title of the first chapter is “I-“; the chapter itself is “-solation”. The last chapter is titled “You-“, and the chapter is “-nification”.

  35. Almost. Chapter 1 of The Jagged Orbit is entitled “Put Yourself In My Place” and its text is “I-“; chapter 2 ‘s title is “Chapter 1, Continued” and its text is “-solationism”. Chapter 99 is entitled “Put Myself In Your Place” and its text is “You-“; chapter 100’s title is “Chapter 99, Continued” and its text is “-nification”. So that’s four chapters of less than a word each, yet another defiance of the definition of document as ‘an ordered hierarchy of content objects’ or OHCO model. SGML and its better known though younger relatives XML and HTML instantiate the OHCO model; LMNL (officially the Layered Markup and Annotation Langage, but pronounced like liminal; I was a contributor), is a form of markup that deals in possibly overlapping ranges rather than hierarchies and thus is non-OHCO.

  36. Jim Parish says:

    Thanks. As I said, it was close to fifty years ago, and the book vanished from my collection sometime in the following decade.

  37. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn chapter titles have more than just those two versions though. There are the ones I had in my book; there were also the most commonly occurring ones (such as “We Ambuscade the A-rabs,” for chapter 3); however, there were others as well. There was at least one other system of chapter names (and, I think but am not sure, actually two more). I cannot remember which, but one of the “partial” titles was used as the full chapter title for one of the early chapters in some students’ editions of the book.

  38. Another technical reason for splitting the novels into chapterz was publishing in literature journals by parts, quite popular in the 19th century, at least in Russia

  39. But there’s no necessity for the parts (which were quite long) to themselves be subdivided into chapters.

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Max: Many now well-known 19C novels were published a few pages at a time in daily newspapers too – actually I read some in current French newspapers as a young teen-ager in the 50’s! I don’t remember if each set (typically printed on the bottom half of a page) was considered a chapter or not. This type of literature was called le roman feuilleton – from the word la feuille ‘leaf’, hence ‘sheet of paper’.

  41. This way of publishing novels still existed in the 70s; I remember reading installments of novels in newspapers. Maybe some papers still do that. I also remember seeing chapter numbers in the middle of such installments, so at least there were cases where the chapter division was independent of the division into installments. It may be the case that those novels I read in papers had been published as a book first and were syndicated to the paper later.

  42. David Marjanović says:

    This way of publishing novels still existed in the

    90s, possibly 00s.

    And nowadays, webcomics are published one strip a day.

  43. Lars (the original one) says:

    le roman feuilleton — loaned and spelled føljeton in Danish, but almost impossible not to associate with the verb følge = ‘follow’ because it was something you’d follow day to day.

  44. There was a big fuss when Stephen King published a serial novel called The Green Mile in 1996 about how nobody had done that since Dickens. But of course Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities was serialized in 1987 and Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City in 1978. What was unusual about TGM was that the installments were printed as 96-page paperback books.

  45. John Cowan: strange, it was common in the two or three decades after WW II to serialize a novel in magazines, then print the combined and edited version. That gave the author a way to make two paltry sums instead of one back when magazines had some distribution advantages over paperback books. No need to go back to Dickens!

  46. Yeah, I read a lot of the sf novels of the sixties first as serials in F&SF, Galaxy, and Astounding/Analog.

  47. As a current Analog subscriber, I’m happy to say it’s still common. But of course that is Genre, and Genre Does Not Count when talking about literature.

  48. When it was announced that The Green Mile was going to be published in serialized installments, I remember hearing an interview about it with Stephen King. He said specifically that he was writing a book whose natural format was that way; in fact, he did not want the book to be published in any other format. Of course, once it was finished, The Green Mile was printed as a regular hardback novel anyway.

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