The chapbook is a little book, defined by the Oxford dictionary in two ways: historically, as “a small pamphlet containing tales, ballads, or tracts, sold by pedlars”, and, in North America, as “a small paper-covered booklet containing poems or fiction”. It is the American type of chapbook that we are most familiar with now. In the UK they are more often described as pamphlets, but, for me, “chapbook” is a sturdier name for these diverse and often beautifully produced booklets.
In Ireland in the 19th century hundreds of thousands of chapbooks were printed every year to cater for the literate poor. They had titles such as A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Highwaymen, Tories and Rapparees. They featured stories and patriotic songs, and were sold in shops and markets, as well as by pedlars. Thackeray found books for sale alongside hunting whips in Galway, and, in Ennis, he bought ones he hoped would "serve for a half-hour's gossip on the next rainy day". He described the content as "grotesque" but also "innocent-hearted".
These days individualism and superior design are part of the appeal of chapbooks. Though always small, they come in a huge variety of formats – matchbooks, passport-sized, gate-folded – and are often illustrated. On a recent trip to McNally Jackson Books in New York I was mesmerised by the beauty, diversity and quality of the chapbooks for sale. They were slim and shapely, squat and hand-bound, square and chubby. Some contained a single short story, others brief collections of poems or flash fiction. All were covetable
Every so often the big publishers make a foray into tiny books – Penguin with its 60s, Picador with its Shots – but the pocket-sized book is the preserve of the smaller, independent presses, and of the individual author, hand-sewing the binding at home. While digital publishing strides on, there is a grassroots love for the quirky small book. Writers love them, they represent a toe in the publishing water and are cheaply self-produced. Readers like them because they are portable and easily digested.
Small presses excel at chapbooks: Doire Press in Connemara runs annual chapbook competitions for both poetry and fiction; the literary magazine the Moth, based in Cavan, recently published a series of tiny books under the Moth Editions imprint, and Lapwing in Belfast has been producing small poetry books since 1988. Chain bookshops no doubt like the uniformity of mass-produced books: they are easy to shelve. But wouldn't it be great if each bookshop we visited had one space dedicated to bespoke, lovingly handcrafted chapbooks of every kind?
Nuala Ní Chonchúir's chapbook of flash fiction, Of Dublin and Other Fictions, is now out from Tower Press (USA).