Chapter and Universe

If I were to tell you that Western civilization was transmitted straight down from Greece and Rome to Victorian and Edwardian Britain, you might think I was pushing an impossibly old-fashioned line (and you might have plenty of choice epithets for it). It’s not the kind of thing that people would say out loud, outside of certain very reactionary milieux. But people go on writing books as if such were, in fact, the unquestionable pattern of history. The other day I learned about a book– quite possibly a good book, on its own terms and given its limited perspective– about the history of the chapter as textual and cognitive unit. After pointing out another scholar’s docta ignorantia about the origin of page numbers, today let me introduce Nicholas Dames, The Chapter. Take a look at the table of contents. One would never know from it that chapter divisions are found in Chinese books from a very early date (or why). Doesn’t the Chinese chapter have a history worth telling that is also part of the history of humanity?

Not only the Chinese chapter, of course– but it puzzles me that smart people can fall over themselves praising a book that didn’t ask some obvious questions — questions that were off the narrow and obligatory track that runs from Homer to Joyce.