Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The endangered tome

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Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology

Last week, a cardboard box the size of a mini fridge arrived on my front doorstep. Inside it was a single book, along with what seemed like twenty gallons of styrofoam packing peanuts. To be fair, this was no ordinary book: it was Howard B. Adelmann’s Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology, which at five folio volumes and over two thousand pages is probably the single heaviest book I’ll ever own, not counting my Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. If you haven’t heard of Malpighi, that’s fine—neither had I. For the record, Malpighi is well worth knowing in his own right: he was one of the greatest natural historians in a generation that included William Harvey and Antonie van Leeuwehoek, and his contributions to science, undertaken with the aid of one of the earliest microscopes, include the discovery of capillaries and the first detailed account of the structure of the lungs. And his life, which occupies the set’s first seven hundred pages, is so interesting that I’m tempted to write a novel about it. But I was even more interested in Adelmann and his huge book, which is both the end result of decades of painstaking scholarship and an astonishingly beautiful example of the bookmaker’s craft.

And I bought it sight unseen, after a chain of events that wouldn’t be out of place in a story by Borges. Earlier this year, I acquired a copy of The Plan of St. Gall, arguably the most gorgeous book printed anywhere in the last half century. Tucked inside the first volume was a photocopy of an article by D.J.R. Bruckner of the New York Times, from October 18, 1981, on the recent slate of monumental projects funded by academic presses. After his account of the publication of The Plan of St. Gall, which took more than three years in the printing alone, Bruckner continues:

Such an investment is not unprecedented. The Cornell press hired Oxford University Press to manufacture Howard Adelmann’s edition of Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology, a five-volume set of 2,548 folio pages selling for $200 a set. (Go to a library and see it one day; it is wonderful just to look at.) The Oxford printers took five years to make the book. Roger Howley, director of the Cornell press, says it would cost $1,000 a set to reprint now, only fifteen years later.

That’s the kind of description I found hard to resist, and after discovering that Adelmann’s work wasn’t available in any public library in Chicago, I knew that the only way I’d have a chance to see it was to shell out for a copy for myself. (I ended up paying about $80 for mine.)

Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology

After a week of fascinated browsing, I’d say the price was more than worth it, because Marcello Mapighi may be the most splendid example I’ve ever seen of the kind of book with which I’ve found myself increasingly obsessed: a tome. By definition, a tome is big and heavy, a lapbreaker more comfortably read on a lectern than in bed, but it has other qualities that may not be as obvious. A tome is old and out of print, and it smells a certain way, as the lignin in the paper breaks down and releases the scent of vanilla. The best ones come in multiple volumes. And they’re often the product of an academic press, which can afford to devote the necessary time and attention on a project that might never break even. A tome isn’t just an aesthetic object: it’s an expression of a particular idea about books, which holds that certain subjects and ideas can only be adequately treated in two thousand folio pages. They’re both a reflection of the sacred act of reading and a pragmatic sense that this is the only way to preserve and convey particular kinds of information, in deep books of wisdom that can’t be casually approached or condensed onto a Kindle. Adelmann explains in his preface that the book is less about Malpighi than a way of using one scholar’s work as a window into an entire field, and if the result is both chatty and a little insane, it’s only because Adelmann saw no other way of doing it.

Which may be why I’ve had to go back several decades or more to find the tomes I crave. This isn’t just a fetishization of the old for its own sake—although this strikes me as just as worthy than the fetishization of the new—but a reflection of the fact that the realities of contemporary publishing have made this kind of grand intellectual project ever harder to justify. There are exceptions, of course: my ongoing fascination with tomes dates back ten years, when I picked up the seven-volume McSweeney’s set of William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down, and you see a similar impulse in the enormous, faintly monstrous volumes published by the likes of Taschen. (There’s also the occasional freak impulse from authors wealthy enough to publish their books independently, like Nathan Myhvold’s Modernist Cuisine, although its slick production makes it feel less like a tome than like a forty-pound magazine.) But the true tome is a dying species, even if it has managed to sporadically hang on over the last century. I’d like to think that we’re on the verge of a resurgence: in order to compete with their digital equivalents, physical books may need to become bigger and more beautiful than ever before. Yet the patience and time they require will only grow more scarce. In the meantime, I’ll keep hunting down the ones that still exist, and I’m heartened by the idea that they’ll be waiting for me, on some dusty shelf, until I manage to find them. Other books may come and go, but a real tome is forever.

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