Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Rising Up and Rising Down

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.

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.

Books as furniture

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The author's library

I’ve always been fascinated by the prospect of buying books by the foot. The Strand, my favorite bookstore in New York, offers a number of packages for consumers looking to furnish a library as quickly as possible, ranging from four hundred dollars per foot for antique leather editions to slightly less for cookbooks, art books, or legal volumes. The intended purchasers seem to be theatrical designers or, more often, interior decorators furnishing a different kind of set, a stage on which clients can buy the appearance of being voracious readers without going through the trouble of acquiring books one by one. And although it’s generally more economical—if less efficient—for me to get my books at retail, rather than wholesale, I’ve occasionally been tempted to order a few yards of reading material, just to see what serendipitous finds I’d discover there.

Recently, I read a post on Apartment Therapy in defense of organizing books by color, which seems to be an ongoing trend in interior design, or at least on home decorating blogs. It’s controversial, I think, because displaying a shelf of blue, red, or yellow books emphasizes their decorative function to an extent that makes us uncomfortable: not only have these books been judged by their covers, but even the words on the spine aren’t particularly important. The article makes some good points—it can be helpful for visual thinkers, it allows us to appreciate books for their visual qualities as well as for their content—but it won’t stop many serious readers from having a visceral negative reaction. For many of us, it parades the use of books as furniture a little too blatantly: it just doesn’t feel like a working library, however often the owner might pull a favorite green or teal volume from the shelf. And the idea of choosing books solely because of how they’ll look seems disrespectful to the authors whose life’s work they represent.

The author's library

Yet when I consider it more rationally, my instinctive response seems a little overblown. I’ll often organize books by size, for instance, on the theory that a row of bindings of the same height looks better than an irregular skyline of mismatched volumes. And while I’ve never bought a book solely because of how it would look in my collection, I can’t rule out that this might be a subconscious factor in some purchases. I doubt I’ll ever make it all the way through William Vollmann’s unabridged seven-volume version of Rising Up and Rising Down, but I look at it with pleasure every day. The Great Books of the Western World set, which has followed me to every dorm room, apartment, and house since college, was originally acquired because I really intended to read all those books, but these days, it tends to serve the function for which many of its original buyers probably intended it—as a classy decorative note in an office or study. (The same thing, alas, seems to be happening with my Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

But above all, I get a visceral pleasure from looking at the books in my library that can’t be explained by utility alone. Books are furniture, but they’re also the best furniture there is: when I’m sitting among my books, I feel more human, more alive, and more content. Of course, that’s mostly because my bookshelf is also a tangible autobiography. Every book I own represents a choice, or a moment in my life; I can often remember when and where each one was bought, or the interests it reflected at the time. As a result, my library is a reflection of my brain—a way for me to set up a desk and reading chair in my own skull—and it means more to me than it can to anyone else, which is something you can’t buy by the foot. As Thoreau said:

Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the shellfish, and not overlaid with it.

And even if you buy a book for the sake of its color, if there are readers in the house, they’ll find it. So there’s no shame in buying books as furniture—it’s the best way there is to cover a wall.

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