Book Review

Binding First Folios to world’s bibliophiles

By James Sullivan
October 29, 2009

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Why should the term “bookish’’ be saddled with such negative connotations? We should all aspire to bookishness, even if we’re soon reading the things electronically.

Paul Collins gives bookishness a good name. The resident “literary detective’’ on NPR’s Weekend Edition, he’s also the author of a book on the bibliophilic Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye (“Sixpence House’’) and another on the peripatetic remains of “Common Sense’’ author Thomas Paine (“The Trouble With Tom’’).

Collins gets no greater kick than to root around in the musty scent of old books, and then write his own about the experience. “The Book of William,’’ the writer’s fifth title, follows his obsession to the root of all bibliomania - Shakespeare’s exceedingly rare, ultra-collectible First Folio.

“The Book of William’’ is much more about the book itself than it is about the playwright. Collins travels far and wide in search of the 230 or so copies of the 1623 anthology. Compiled just a few years after Shakespeare’s death with help from some of his theatrical contemporaries, the First Folio is the Holy Grail of the collected plays. One copy sold in 2001 for more than $6 million; a recently recovered copy was valued at 15 million pounds.

The author proves himself to be an amusing, if unlikely, guide: Lurching into a Sotheby’s preview in London straight from a red-eye arrival at Heathrow, he’s well aware that he is being monitored.

“In a room filled with middle-aged men in spectacles and dapper linen blazers for the July heat, I’m the one guy who looks most likely to douse himself in lighter fluid and scream gibberish about Freemasons,’’ he jokes. Later, at auction, he finds himself “within spitballing distance of Steve Martin.’’

But Collins is no mere cutup. He offers a comprehensive early publishing history of Shakespeare’s plays - a crooked line that includes cameo appearances by Samuel Johnson and Alexander Pope, among others - before setting off on a present-day quest to track down some of the most coveted Folios. He exults in the presence of the so-called Grenville Folio, the well-kept copy which served as the model for the 1866 photographic facsimile project of one Howard Staunton, perhaps better remembered as the chess expert whose name today indicates a standard chess set.

In Washington, D.C., the author visits the Folger Library, repository for the world’s largest collection of First Folios. Henry Folger, an assistant to the Pratt oil family, eventually rose to an executive position at Standard Oil, alongside John D. Rockefeller. He quietly invested his wealth in hundreds of thousands of books, chief among them his beloved First Folios - 79 of them in all by the time of his death (more than half the copies then known to exist).

With the supervisory librarian stalling to let Collins get his hands on the collection’s most pristine Folio, the author impishly asks to see the worst example she has on hand. Badly mishandled over the years, the precious book is deeply dented, as though “it had been used to prop up a table leg - which, I’m beginning to suspect, it probably was. . . . Measure for Measure has a smear of glue across page 84; Henry VI got splatted with strawberry jam.’’ It’s enough to give anyone who’s ever owned a book palpitations.

That, essentially, is Collins’s purpose here - not to sing Shakespeare’s praises (as if they still need to be sung), but to show, through the quintessential example, how much meaning we humans can invest in the printed word. The story of each First Folio, he writes, is the story of “the vicissitudes of every book after it leaves the author’s hands: they are scorned and loved, remade and destroyed, and eternally lost and found again.’’

James Sullivan is the author of “The Hardest Working Man: How James Brown Saved the Soul of America.’’

THE BOOK OF WILLIAM: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World By Paul Collins

Bloomsbury, 256 pp., $25

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