Forget Regency-era zombies and girls with dragon tattoos. If you’re looking for an engrossing read this summer, what you really want is a history of the first collection of the plays of William Shakespeare.
Well, OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating a little. The Book of William, by Paul Collins, is not a thriller in any usual sense of the term. But it is highly engaging. And if you previously imagined that the words “page-turner” and “Shakespeare” did not belong in the same sentence, this could be the book that changes your mind.
Collins is an author and assistant professor of English at Portland State University, but he is perhaps best known as National Public Radio’s resident literary detective, delving into such topics as John Philip Sousa’s career as a novelist and the origins of true-crime literature. Here, Collins tackles the subject of “the most important secular [book] of all time,” a work literally worth 55 times its own weight in gold.
You would not know to look at it. “The Book of William” opens at a London auction where a First Folio is on display. (There are about 230 – verified – First Folios in the world today.) It has a “stout, unadorned leather binding, resembling nothing so much as a fine slab of old oak.” But behind it lies a history likely to surprise even those who think they know a thing or two about the bard.
It all started in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. Two of his fellow actors decided to compile as many of his plays as possible into a book. This was no easy task. Shakespeare had been “extraordinarily negligent” of his own work, leaving behind “the typical scattered mess of a busy artist.” But scraping together what they could – a dozen rough drafts in Shakespeare’s own hand, another dozen from “prompt books,” and 12 more from cheap quarto editions – they pulled together 36 plays.
There was no profit in the enterprise. The 500 copies were sold for a pound apiece and elicited little public interest. And yet what they did was momentous. In Shakespeare’s time, plays most often left no official record. Had the First Folio not been printed, much of its contents might have been lost, as if, Collins notes, “the greatest works of English literature were never written.”
Subsequent collections of Shakespeare’s plays were printed later. But none even came close to the “purity” of the First Folio. Consequently, by the 1700s, the First Folio had already become a highly valued collector’s item.
Since then, First Folios have turned up – and been pursued – all over the globe. “Folios have been found in Lincolnshire granaries and in Tokyo vaults,” writes Collins. “They have been lost to fire and torn to pieces and sunk to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean; they have turned up in abandoned Spanish halls and in spinsters’ bungalows.” In 1923 there were rumors of a First Folio in New Delhi, and similar reports in Siberia in 1956.
Scholars and collectors have dedicated their lives to accounting for them. As part of his research, Collins travels to the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., where he sees First Folio No. 1, a book that it is virtually priceless. He also, fittingly, closes his book with a trip to Japan (after the Folger, Meisei University in Tokyo has the world’s next-largest collector of First Folios), where the First Folios are being digitized.
To take a trip with Collins is to travel, indeed. To walk down a London street with him is to see and feel it not only as it is today but also to experience it in all the mud and splendor of the Elizabethan era. When Collins meets a collector you can almost taste the cold ham they share for lunch, and when he petitions a librarian you can nearly see her purple outfit.
In short, the man knows how to tell a story. It makes “The Book of William” a case of a skilled narrator matched with an intriguing topic – in other words, a lively read for any season.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.