In the last year, I have noticed more handmade artist books, zines, and chapbooks appear in the creative world. Attend a poetry reading, a craft fair, or browse Etsy and you’ll come across plethora of chapbooks that have been lovingly created to share with a wider audience; sometimes as a single book or sometimes in batches of hundreds. With beginnings in the 16th century, chapbooks are now seemingly undergoing a renaissance and return to popularity among makers.
A Brief History
Chapbooks were produced for the general public, becoming widespread in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were inexpensive, portable, and largely featured popular and folk writings alongside simple images. The portable nature of the chapbook meant they could be carried and sold to the public at events and in rural areas, especially in areas where people did not have access to a library or store. Purveyors of these books were called “chapmen,” hence chapbook. Typically, chapbooks were produced on a single sheet of paper (which was then folded into a multiple of four paged booklet).
This simplicity is still captured in chapbooks today: an affordable, portable, shareable art form.
Why I Love Chapbooks
This is one of the more accessible forms of art and/or text, for both makers and buyers. Simple materials (paper, ink) allow for inexpensive DIY production of chapbooks. Low material costs often translates into affordable pieces. Of course there are chapbook publishing houses and printers, but they tend to be relatively inexpensive.
Chapbooks can contain anything. There are no set rules, no taboo topics, or formatting guidelines. Do you want to express an opinion, comment on a political issue, or dismantle a social construct? Make a chapbook. Do you want to tell a personal story? Make a chapbook. Do you want to write poetry and illustrate it yourself? Make a chapbook.
I have read chapbooks that touch on real experiences, personal growth, thrift shops, feminism, unicorns, and Canadian politics. Write about what you want; I assure you, someone wants to read your words.
What is considered a chapbooks is rather undefined and fluid, allowing an artist to decide how to design and produce a chapbook. My favourite part about chapbooks is that they are so individual. Since they can be self-produced, individual creativity comes through and adds a rawness to the art. Think about what goes into publishing a book, then strip that back to the bare bones of the artists’ words and images. What I have experienced with most self-produced chapbooks is a very organic, personal art form.
Do you have a favourite chapbook? Have you made your own? Please share with us!
Next time, I’ll share a tutorial for making your own chapbooks.