Chapbook: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Angela Gentry
Read about one of literature's smallest books/pamphlets and explore the specific design benefits of this shorter form. Afterwards, test your understanding with a quiz.

Definition

As children, we're often fascinated by those objects that have an exaggerated 'other' size, meaning they're quite different from what we've experienced as normal. We might collect gigantic elements of nature to build the biggest fort we've ever seen, or, on the other hand, create tiny accessories to complement our dollhouse.

Fort

The chapbook, a publication that has deep historical roots and great promise for future writing, is essentially a pocket-sized or abbreviated pamphlet. Throughout history, publishers utilized this shorter form to spread children's stories, ballads, religious tracts, political tracts, poetry, and so on to the masses. As more of the general population became literate and desired more information for both knowledge and recreation, publishers found they could meet this demand through the inexpensive printing costs of the chapbook.

Usually made from paper and bound by saddle-staples, chapbooks are shorter than 40 pages in length. One feature that has remained constant throughout history is that chapbooks frequently feature a higher artistic or aesthetic quality than a traditional publication. Publishers were willing to experiment more with form and style, as fewer chapbooks were printed in a run. If the chapbook was not successful, the publishers did not have a large quantity of books that would not sell. The curious and often unusual aesthetic of the chapbook has also made it an ideal collector's item.

Historical chapbook

Today, the literary world still relies heavily on the dissemination of chapbooks, as it provides new writers, in particular, with an open door to the field. Poetry chapbooks are the most common form, and poets will often publish a chapbook that showcases or previews a larger body of work or manuscript. While the chapbook does not count as a full-length publication, it can be a crucial stepping stone for a writer's experimentation and professional development.

Examples

Since the chapbook has morphed over time, let's discuss an example from history, as well as a more contemporary example.

Chapbooks were first produced in the early 16th century, and many of them included popular fairy tales, such as Jack the Giant Killer.

Jack the Giant Killer; chapbook

Because of its popularity, this chapbook went through several revisions over time, although we tend to rely on the transcript from 1787, and was known by both titles - The History of Jack and the Giants and Jack the Giant Killer.

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