As defined at Eduscapes, the chapbook was “a small (4 x 6 inches), pocket-sized pamphlet. Although the term ‘chapbook’ was coined in the 19th century, this ephemeral literature was introduced in the 17th century. The term comes from the Old English word ‘chap’ meaning deal, barter, or business. These books were often sold door-to-door by salesmen known as chapmen. Printers would provide these salesmen books on credit to sell around the countryside.”

I think it’s overstating things to treat chapbook as an obsolete word which has gone out of use, as the Oxford English Dictionary does. Anne Carson’s recently published “book” Float describes itself as  “A collection of twenty-two chapbooks whose order is unfixed and whose topics are various”  adding the slightly ominous invitation “Reading can be freefall”. The OED entry hasn’t been updated since 1889 however, so they can maybe claim that the word’s use as a description of a little poetry pamphlets is a recent development. I rather prefer Chambers’ definition — “a book or pamphlet of a popular type such as was hawked by chapmen”. It’s nice when a dictionary has attitude.

The idea of an itinerant bookseller seems so utterly romantic that I find myself surprised that no such people exist today. Well, not that surprised: it is after all hard enough to make living as a regular bookseller. Once upon a time I was employed for one day as an itinerant Encyclopedia salesman. We descended on an American base somewhere near Mannheim and tried to persuade servicemen that their children’s development would be utterly compromised if they didn’t buy our multivolume encyclopedia, available on “attractive hire-purchase terms”. I quit after finding myself compelled to talk my first customers out of their resolve to buy the damn thing. They just seemed too nice to exploit thus.

Chapmen may mainly be remembered as itinerant booksellers, but they sold all sorts of stuff. The chapman billies Tam O’Shanter observed in the streets of Ayr were no doubt selling items other than books. I can remember little old vans that used to come up to my uncle’s farm just after the war selling odds and ends of immense variety out of the back: no doubt these were the few surviving remnants of Tam’s buddies. The chap in chapman comes from the Old English ceáp, Old Saxon côp, to barter or trade. In German it remains more evident as choufman > Kaufmann, which remains the word for a merchant in general. Chap, as in lad, derives from an extension of the same root, by way of customer/buyer/person easily beguiled. The original meaning remains current if rare as to cheapen: to hondel, chaffer, haggle or bargain the price down. Less stressfully it does also mean to ask the price of an item. Stress and guilt feelings may haunt those of us who participated in the late twentieth century rush to cheapen books (as in make them cheaper) by using ever trashier materials and processes, so that what we publishers offer you now is an embarrassingly debased product.

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