Culture Editor Ilina Jha reviews The Chapter by Nicholas Dames, finding it to be an interesting but dense and difficult read
The Chapter: A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century by Nicholas Dames is a forthcoming publication (7th November) from Princeton University Press, all about – you guessed it – ‘the chapter.’ When reading, we may ponder on a chapter’s title; we may observe its relative shortness or length; and we may even think about the striking ways in which it begins and ends – but how often do we think about the concept of the chapter itself as a means of structuring and dividing up the books we read? Dames (who is Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University) sets out to think about this very topic as he traces a literary history of the chapter, from the organisational divisions of ancient Rome to the narrative form of eighteenth through to twenty-first century novels.
The Chapter certainly spans an impressive time range of two millennia in its historical breadth. Dames charts in extensively researched detail the history of the chapter in the Western world, from its first uses in Roman times as a means of organising information, through to its first uses in the novel in the eighteenth century, its development in the nineteenth century, and how its uses have evolved in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It has to be said here that Dames’s history of ‘the chapter’ is exclusively a Western one, which he does note in his introduction to the book (p. 8). While I grant that it would be near-impossible to provide a complete, thorough history in one book, it is frustrating that Dames finds it very easy to write a book that is ostensibly about the history of ‘the chapter’ in a broad sense, but is, in reality, about the history of ‘the chapter in the Western world.’ Dames’s book is called The Chapter, not The Western Chapter; it is subtitled A Segmented History from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, not A Segmented History from Graeco-Roman Antiquity to the European and American Twenty-First Century. Using such generalising titles for a book that details only a Western history serves to perpetuate the colonial idea that European and White American histories are ‘the norm’ and that histories from elsewhere in the world are ‘Other.’
The limited history that Dames provides us is, on paper, very interesting. I most enjoyed the later part of the book on the development of the chapter in the Western novel, in particular the section about how the chapter came to frequently span the length of a day (beginning in the morning and ending in the evening, often with a character falling asleep) in the nineteenth-century novel. Unfortunately, what is otherwise a fascinating history is rendered difficult and dull by Dames’s writing style. There is a fine line between intelligent writing and unintelligible writing, and sadly The Chapter falls into the latter camp. Dames uses overly-complicated, obscure terminology and long-winded examples, as well as taking many pages to say what could have been summed up in one. This makes for dense, difficult reading that renders the content of the book less interesting than it might have been. It is possible to write about complex, intellectual ideas using specialist terminology in a way that has clarity, and this would have improved the book enormously.
Overall, whilst The Chapter contains some insightful history and commentary, the pretentious and unintelligible writing makes it a dense and difficult read.
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