So yesterday, we talked briefly about paragraphs and chapters. They can’t be defined very well outside their contexts; they’re tools that do the work of being paragraphish, or chapterish. So what is that work?
A paragraph is like a course in a chef’s tasting menu. It gives us a moment to pause and to think about what we’ve just encountered before the next dish comes to the table and reorients our experience. (Each sentence is its own fork-full of the dish… and if the dish or paragraph is well-crafted, each bite is its own small revelation about the components and interactions that make up that larger experience.)
A chapter is the evening at the table. A sequence of dishes, nicely timed and well-thought-together, that make up an experience that comes to full closure. For instance, here’s the traditional order of service at Downton Abbey.
We begin with hors d’ouvres and cocktails in the library. Perhaps the simple colonial Gin and Tonic, its brightness and herbal notes contrasting nicely with a roast beef and horseradish tart, or a tiny croque monseur. The drink in one hand and the canape between thumb and forefinger of the other, we please ourselves with our cleverness.
We are called to the table, where a light broth soup will ease us from liquid toward solid pleasures. But we’ll remain light with our third course, a poached salmon with a light hollandaise to remind us that we are adjacent to the ocean and its related blessings of colonial exploitation.
The fourth course is a turn from sea to land, to the estate itself: roast grouse, perhaps, brought down that morning by your gamekeeper—or, if you’re feeling familial, brought down by your visiting nephew on the morning’s hunt. (Your sister’s son is a disappointment, but family concerns are kept quiet in broader company.) A small accompaniment of rice steamed with parsley and chives.
The fifth course is known as the removes. It is an episode of its own, in which the service staff clears scraps and sides in preparation for the second movement. In typographical terms, we might think of it as a section break, a moment of nothing that signifies quite a lot.
Ah, the attendants begin our seconds with the sorbet course, doing work akin to that of the earlier clear soup; a light, bright reframing of our attention. That little introductory phrase is followed by the largest and most elaborate of the courses, the roast platter. The rack of lamb, the sirloin roast glistening with duck fat… the big carnivorous mass surrounded by roast cauliflower and potatoes and carrots, each guest pointing to her or his preferences as the cart rolls by.
Good lord, that was a lot of food. Time for a bit of roughage to help digestion. A salad course, lightly dressed, a touch of pepper, thank you.
And a sweet. A small pudding or pot de creme, or a glorious scalloped tart, presented whole before being cut into tiny wedges. Sublime.
We remove to the library once again, to be met with a small platter of sliced camembert and pears and a bit of Champagne. After a few moments of collective chat, the gentlemen retreat to the smoking lounge for cigars and cognac and discussion of politics and empire, while the ladies withdraw to the parlor for tea (or perhaps a small tipple of some lovely aperitif, a new Kina Lillet just in from Harold’s visit to Nouvelle Aquitaine), a game of bridge. Perhaps we can persuade young Ella to sing one of her nice pieces that she’s learned for the coming social season.
Bring the cars around. Farewell to our visiting guests, and preparation for bed for those members of the family staying with us for tomorrow’s excursion to the Chelsea Flower Show.
Now, let’s think typographically about what just happened over dinner. Each paragraph, in doing the work of being paragraphish, was about the multiple components of an individual course. It was a fully contained service, with individual sentences and clauses revealing its different components. And it came to a brief close, during which we consolidated that experience before encountering the next.
And because you’re reading this on a computer, what physical action did you take? You used that opportunity to scroll slightly, centering the coming paragraph on the screen for ease of comprehension. You don’t scroll mid-paragraph, unless the paragraphs are long and ungainly. You scroll where the white space tells you to scroll.
The section breaks were the markers of the different acts of the play. The moments where we moved from one room to another, one way of thinking to another, one large subdivision of time to another. Just as a comma and period both do different kinds of the same work of momentary hesitation, the section break is simply an emphasized paragraph break, alerting you that some larger new experience is soon to arrive.
And now that we’ve reached the end—of the chapter, of the post, of the evening—you are permitted to take your leave. You will click rather than scroll, the episode retreating to memory. Tomorrow, or the next URL, will bring its own pleasures.
Lovely to see you. We look forward to your return. Be well.
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