I pick the book up, its age-softened cardboard covers sweating dust, its linen pages foxy and feathering. It takes two hands to hold it. I carry it to the table and release it; the sound when it hits is percussive, then resonant: “tome.”
Tome. It is a grave word; it has the consonants of tomb and the vowel of stone. A tome is a book with the weight, size, and gravity of a tombstone; it is a hefty tome, a weighty tome, a heavy tome, a massive tome, a ponderous tome. It is also a dusty tome and a leather tome. A tome is the physical, bibliotechnical evidence of time; the candlestick of live words i in time is burnt down but leaves its fat printed wax o and that is this tome. It is the epitome of weighty learning, the last word in first words. Its morphemes lodge in your eyes as motes. It is age; it is words; it is paper; it is volume.
Yes, volume. A tome, in the first place, was a volume of a multi-volume work. It comes from Greek τόμος tomos, from τέμνειν temnein, verb, ‘cut’ (also the root of epitome, originally a cut-down account – a brief abstract). This is a sixty-four-ounce steak cut from the side of a beefy work. But we will not now call a paperback copy of one part of a trilogy a tome. A multi-volume work, in this image, is a great ancient encyclopedia, an august authoring imprinted in folio format. In modern times, of course, the requirement that it be but a part has been cut. Any two-hand book will serve.
This is a word kept in reserve for special occasions, a word that hangs in the closet next to your formal wear. Use it too much and you may tame its tone, but at least as likely you will simply look like a guy who wears a bowtie to a frat house party. Actually, I must confess, this word seems to me already somewhere in that direction: no more a genuine morning coat with tails or proper dinner attire; at best the adjustable rental waistcoat with elastic straps, and at worst the T-shirt with the waistcoat and tie printed onto it. It is used almost entirely by those who wish to assume on the moment an air of gravitas without having earned it. It serves as verbal clip art for journalists and feature writers and jokey friends and co-workers: “That’s a hefty tome you got there.” The word is a whilom duke’s carriage now pressed into service giving rides at a petting zoo.
Well, no mind. I have my tomes, and they are suitable to me.