Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Marcello Malphigi and the Evolution of Embryology

The grand projects

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The Lisle Letters

Thirty-five years ago, on October 18, 1981, the New York Times published a long article by the critic D.J.R. Bruckner. Titled “The Grand Projects,” it was a survey of what Bruckner called “the big books or projects that need decades to finish,” and which only a handful of academic publishers in the country are equipped to see from beginning to end. I first came across it in a photocopy tucked into the first volume of one of the books that it mentions, The Plan of St. Gall, the enormous study of monastic life that I bought a few years ago after dreaming about it for decades. At the time, I was just starting to collect rare and unusual books for their own sake, and I found myself using Bruckner’s article—which I recently discovered was the first piece that he ever published for the Times—as a kind of map of the territory. I purchased a copy of Howard Adelmann’s massive Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology mostly because Bruckner said: “Go to a library and see it one day; it is wonderful just to look at.” And last week, as a treat for myself after a rough month, I finally got my hands on the six volumes of Muriel St. Clare Byrne’s The Lisle Letters, which Bruckner mentions alongside The Plan of St. Gall as one of the great triumphs of the university press. For the moment, I have everything on my list, although I suppose that Costa Rican Natural History by Daniel Janzen is beckoning from the wings.

But I’ve also found that my motives for collecting these books have changed—or at least they’ve undergone a subtle shift of emphasis. I was initially drawn to these beautiful sets, frankly, for aesthetic reasons. As the product of years or decades of collaborative work, they’re invariably gorgeous in design, typography, printing, and construction. These are books that are meant to last forever. I don’t have as much time to read for my own pleasure as I once did, so I’ve begun to treasure what I’ve elsewhere called tomes, or books so large that their unread pages feel comforting, rather than accusatory. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever have the chance to work through Marcello Malpighi from the first folio page to the last, but I’m happy just to be living in the same house with it. When I’m honest with myself, I acknowledge that it has something to do with a middlebrow fondness for how those uniform sets look when lined up on my bookshelves: it’s the same impulse that led me to pick up books as different as William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down and the sixteen volumes of Richard Francis Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights. At some point, it amounts to buying books as furniture. I can’t totally defend myself from this charge, except by saying that the pleasure that they give me is one that encompasses all the senses. I like to look at them, but also to handle them, leaf through them, and sometimes even smell them. And I’ll occasionally even read them for an hour.

Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology

Over the last year or so, however, I’ve begun to see them in another light. Now they represent an investment of time, which is invisible, but no less vast than the amount of space that they physically occupy. (You could even say that the resulting book is a projection, in three-dimensional space, of the temporal process that produced it. A big book is invariably the product of a big life.) The undisputed champion here has to be The Lisle Letters, which was the end result of fifty years of work by Muriel St. Clare Byrne. She was in her thirties when she began the project, and it was published on her eighty-sixth birthday. It’s an edited and wonderfully annotated selection of the correspondence of Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII. The surviving letters, which encompass one of the most eventful periods in Tudor history, were an important source for the novelist Hilary Mantel in the writing of Wolf Hall. Like most of the tomes that I love, it uses its narrow subject as an entry point into a much larger era, and I especially like Byrne’s explanation of why these particular letters are so useful. Lisle wasn’t even in England for most of it—he was Lord Deputy of Calais, on the northern coast of France. Yet he still had to manage his affairs back home, mostly through letters, which means that the correspondence preserves countless details of daily life that otherwise wouldn’t have been committed to writing. The letters had long been known to historians, but no one had ever gone through systematically and considered them as a whole. Byrne saw that somebody had to do it, and she did. And it only took her five decades.

It’s the time and effort involved that fascinates me now, even more than the tangible pleasures of the books themselves. In some ways, these are just different aspects of the same thing: the academic presses, which can afford to break even or even lose money on monumental projects, can provide scholars with the time they need, and they can publish works intended for only a few thousand readers with the resources they deserve. Occasionally, you see the same impulse in mainstream publishing: Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson sometimes seems less like a commercial enterprise than a public service. (When asked in that wonderful profile by Charles McGrath if Caro’s books were profitable, Sonny Mehta, the head of Knopf, paused and said: “They will be, because there is nothing like them.”) In the end, Caro will have spent as much time on Johnson as Byrne did on Lisle, and the fact that he did it outside the university system is equally remarkable. It’s no accident, of course, that I’ve begun to think in these terms after embarking on a big nonfiction project of my own. Astounding can’t compare to any of these books in size: it’s supposed to appeal to a wide audience, and there are certain constraints in length that are written right into the contract. I don’t have decades to write it, either. When all is said and done, I’ll probably end up devoting three years to it, which isn’t trivial, but it isn’t a lifetime. But I keep these books around to remind me of the devotion and obsessiveness that such projects require. We desperately need authors and publishers like this. And whenever I feel overwhelmed by the work that lies ahead, I just have to ask myself what Caro—or Muriel St. Clare Byrne—would do.

An unread life

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The author's library

A few months ago, I was proudly showing off my home library to a friend when he asked a version of a question I’ve often heard before: “When I see most people with libraries like this, I assume they haven’t read the books. But you’ve read most of these—right?” In response, I may have stammered a little. No, I said, I haven’t read them all, but they’re all here for a reason. Each book fits into its own particular niche, I’ve grazed in each one, and they’re all important to me. If I’d been in a different mood, I might have quoted Umberto Eco’s testy reply to similar queries:

The visitor enters and says, “What a lot of books! Have you read them all?” At first I thought that the question characterized only people who had scant familiarity with books, people accustomed to seeing a couple of shelves with five paperback mysteries and a children’s encyclopedia, bought in installments. But experience has taught me that the same words can be uttered also by people above suspicion. It could be said that they are still people who consider a bookshelf as a mere storage place for already-read books and do not think of the library as a working tool.

In other words, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes, while also citing Eco: “Read books are far less valuable than unread ones.” Which isn’t to say that I’ll simply buy a book and stick it on the shelf to admire. Whenever I acquire a new book, I give it a good browse, just enough to give me an idea of what I really have, and then I file it away, content in the knowledge that when I need to dig deeper, it’ll be there. Or at least that’s the rule I try to follow. In practice, I’ve found myself accumulating books by certain authors—Lewis Mumford, for instance—on a vague suspicion that they’re going to come in handy one day, and others that force themselves on my attention simply because of an alluring look and a reasonable price. In other cases, I’m drawn to books primarily by what they represent: a commitment to a single overwhelming idea, which is something I value without being able to replicate. A book like The Plan of St. Gall or Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology is the product of decades of singleminded work, and as a writer who is happiest when switching frequently between projects, I keep them around as a reminder of a different, and maybe better, way of art and thought.

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

But there’s no question that I browse more than I read these days. Part of this has to do with the shape my life has taken: between an active toddler and my own unwritten pages, it’s hard to find time to sit down with a book for more than half an hour at a stretch. My criteria, in fact, for buying new books has shifted slightly ever since my daughter was born. At the moment, I tend to buy books that I’ll be glad to own even if I don’t read them from cover to cover, which favors titles that are either inherently browsable—where I can turn to a random page in the middle and find something enlightening or diverting—or that have strong aesthetic interest in themselves. The latter encompasses lovely little paperbacks as much as their big leatherbound brothers, but it’s especially why I’m so taken by the idea of the tome. When a book is large enough, the pressure to get through all of it is correspondingly reduced: The Plan of St. Gall seems content to hang around forever as a permanent presence, to be dipped into as often or rarely as I want, rather than plowed through from first volume to last. There comes a point when a book’s sheer size ceases to be formidable and becomes almost comforting in its insistence on pages unread and byways unexplored.

This may be why I’ve been increasingly drawn to rare books like this as my free time has grown ever more contracted. If I blow $200 on St. Gall or $80 on Marcello Malpighi, you shouldn’t be misled into thinking I have oodles of disposable cash; really, they’re just about all I treat myself to these days, aside from the occasional album. When I’m tempted to buy a video game or Blu-ray, there’s a reasonable voice in my head that asks when, exactly, I think I’ll get around to playing or watching it. With a book, I’ve got my answer ready: I’ll leaf through it a little now, then save the rest for the same undefined retirement home in which I’ll finally read all of Gibbon. In the meantime, my unread books give me a satisfaction—as well as occasional injections of pleasure, whenever I remember to take one down from the shelf for a few minutes—that I don’t feel from an unwatched movie or unplayed game. It isn’t clear to me if the result is a working tool, as Eco would say, or a stealth form of vanity, but it probably lies somewhere in the middle. The most generous interpretation is that it’s a monument to possibility, a collection of paths I can take whenever I like. It may not be today, or even in this lifetime. But they’re still a part of the life I have now.

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2014 at 9:48 am

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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