The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World

The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World

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by Paul Collins
     
 

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A tri-continental travelogue in five acts, The Book of William traces the history of one of the world's most hotly pursued literary treasures, encompassing the Fleet Street machinations of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century quest for lost Folios, the obsessive acquisitions by twentieth-century oilmen, and the high-tech hoards of twenty-first century

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Overview

A tri-continental travelogue in five acts, The Book of William traces the history of one of the world's most hotly pursued literary treasures, encompassing the Fleet Street machinations of the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century quest for lost Folios, the obsessive acquisitions by twentieth-century oilmen, and the high-tech hoards of twenty-first century Japan. Collins weaves a captivating narrative as Folios are dearly bought, preciously guarded, and more dearly sold; dusted off in attics; lost in oceans and fires; facsimiled; scanned; and - ultimately - immortalized.

Editorial Reviews

Megan Buskey
Collins writes in this lively and entertaining history of one of the most important books in English literature. Part antiquarian-book primer, part chronicle of literary curiosities, The Book of William is divided into five acts, each evoking a significant place and time in the First Folio's colorful history.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Undoubtedly, the Bard himself would be amused to learn all about the fate of the book compiled after his death by fellow actors and colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell. It was, a collector said recently, "the most important secular work of all time." Collins (Sixpence House), an English professor and NPR regular, is passionate, knowledgeable and sassy in bringing this story to glorious life. Collins divides his work into five acts, leading his reader on a whirlwind trip through the Four Folios eventually printed, into feuds between Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald and to the opportunistic reach of a financially desperate Dr. Johnson. Over the next 200 years, there are the stories of Henry Clay Folger as well as an ingenious collating machine and related technologies for today's textual scholars. Collins's remarkable voyage through time and across the globe leads to Japan, where the most obsessive collectors of "Sheikusupia" reside. This is for anyone with an interest in how Shakespeare has come down to us, the nature of the book business, the art of editing and the evolution of copyright law. A 20-page "Further Readings" section is by itself a sheer delight. (July)

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Library Journal

Collins (Banvard's Folly; Not Even Wrong) has done it again. This history—spanning the globe and 400 years in the life and fortunes of one of the most famous books in the English language—is not the dry province of historians, bibliophiles, and antiquarians. Collins relates the series of near-disasters of the folios' inception (lack of intact manuscripts left by the Bard; Heminge and Condell's blind printer) and continued existence (folios stolen, burned, lost at sea, left to molder in ruined estates, ripped apart and used to wrap fish), which gives readers a renewed appreciation for the rarity and value of the folio. VERDICT There are other authoritative works on Shakespeare's folios, including W.W. Greg's The Shakespeare First Folio and Edwin Eliott Willoughby's The Printing of the First Folio of Shakespeare, but Collins's is a welcome addition to this group. Witty, detailed, and highly entertaining, it will be appreciated by fans of Shakespeare, history, or human folly.—Felicity D. Walsh, Emory Univ., Decatur, GA


—Felicity D. Walsh
Kirkus Reviews
The intricate, improbable story of how the first collection of Shakespeare's plays (1623) became the holiest-i.e., most expensive-of grails in Biblioland. Collins (English/Portland State Univ.) comes well equipped for his peripatetic task. Having written about bibliomania (Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books, 2003) and an iconic historical figure (The Trouble with Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, 2005), the author also possesses a lively curiosity and, to the enlightenment of readers of this galloping, globetrotting romp, an impressive travel allowance. As the Folio publishers divided the Bard's plays into five acts, so too does Collins arrange his tale. Act One opens in a contemporary London auction room-a Folio sold for £2.5 million-but Collins soon returns to the 1620s to watch the surviving Globe colleagues of the recently deceased Shakespeare arrange with printer William Jaggard to print the 36 plays they have assembled-18 of which, Collins reminds us, didn't exist anywhere else. No Folio would mean no Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest or other gems. Collins then follows these First Folios through the centuries, pausing occasionally to educate us about the manufacture of paper, the difference between a folio and a quarto and the reputation of playwrights in general, Shakespeare in particular. Only obliquely does Collins address the "authorship question," noting slyly that a Japanese scholar was the first to notice that all the flowers mentioned in the plays grow in the vicinity of Stratford-upon-Avon. The author also looks at the editions of the Bard's plays that appeared after 1623-there were subsequent folios and editions by Alexander Popeand Samuel Johnson-and sheds some light on Bard-saving heroes unknown to lay readers-notably Lewis Theobald, who was so alarmed at the errors in Pope's edition that he prepared his own. To see the best copies of the Folios, Collins interviewed experts and traveled from the vault of the Folger Shakespeare Library to a Japanese academic library. Exemplary scholar-adventurer writing. Author events in Portland, Ore. Agent: Michelle Tessler/Tessler Literary Agency
From the Publisher
“[A] lively and entertaining history of one of the most important books in English literature." —New York Times Book Review

"[The First Folio's] 386-year history is perfect for Collins' peripatetic narrative style... Collins is pleasant company on these journeys through musty and scholarly byways; fans of Bill Bryson... might find the style similar... This is great, informative fun." —Oregonian

"Collins' journey is that of a man stirred by ancient callings: Here is a tireless time traveler and researcher, focusing our attention on the beauty inherent in obscure and sacred objects." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Paul Collins gives bookishness a good name... The Book of William...follows his obsession to the root of all bibliomania - Shakespeare's exceedingly rare, ultra-collectible First Folio... The author proves himself to be an amusing, if unlikely guide... Collins' purpose here [is] not to sing Shakespeare's praises (as if they still need to be sung), but to show, through the quintessential example, how much we humans can invest in the printed word." - Boston Globe

"Gleefully astonishing... Collins provides one of the most enjoyable examples of a most enjoyable genre, the book biography, as he tells the stories of individual Shakespeare first folios, their owners, their uses, and their travels. It’s a supremely enlightening journey that Collins’ convivial manner makes thoroughly gratifying." —Booklist

"[A] delightful literary ramble... Full of humor, history and travel, The Book of William is an excellent summer read." —Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Collins knows his way around a good literary mystery, and knows how to milk the bizarre and wonderful detail... The Book of William is filled with geeky delights...Collins pours all of the mountainous curiosity and good-hearted wit he showed in his last book, The Trouble with Tom, into The Book of William. Not only is he a first-rate storyteller, he has a keen eye for useful marginalia... It would be easy to say that this is a book for bibliophiles, or theater lovers, and it is. But as far as what some of us want out of our summer reading—to get lost, to learn something, to laugh—we’d make the case for this as the perfect beach read." —Time Out Chicago

“Exemplary scholar-adventurer writing.” —Kirkus (starred)

"An entertaining consideration arranged in five acts of the serendipitous social life the [first folio] has experienced over the four centuries of its existence."—Los Angeles Times

“Smashing…[Collins] is an enthusiastic and amusing writer — a good companion… an adept and committed bibliophile, and in the course of his journey into the history of the Folio’s individual copies, he comes to a not-so-startling realization; books outlive even the greatest of us.” —Palm Beach Post

"Collins has done it again. This history—spanning the globe and 400 years in the life and fortunes of one of the most famous books in the English language—is not the dry province of historians, bibliophiles, and antiquarians...Witty, detailed, and highly entertaining, it will be appreciated by fans of Shakespeare, history, or human folly." —Library Journal

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781596911963
Publisher:
Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
08/03/2010
Pages:
256
Sales rank:
961,610
Product dimensions:
8.44(w) x 11.08(h) x 0.69(d)

Meet the Author

Paul Collins is an assistant professor of English at Portland State University and the author of Sixpence House, The Trouble with Tom, Not Even Wrong, and Banvard's Folly. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, the New York Times, and Slate. He edits the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney's Books and appears regularly on NPR's Weekend Edition as the show's resident literary detective.

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