Saturday, July 04, 2009

Book Review: "The Book of William"

I'm always a little apprehensive about reading new books by my favorite authors: I get very excited about them, but then I worry that I might be disappointed, or something. In any case, I needn't have fretted about Paul Collins' latest, The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World (Bloomsbury, forthcoming). It's pure bibliophilic gold - the best book about books - or a book, in this case - published in recent memory (perhaps since Nick Basbanes' A Gentle Madness in 1995).

The book is organized, appropriately enough, into acts and scenes; each act focuses on a separate century of the First Folio's existence, highlighting changes in its reputation over time and delving deeply into its production, use by later editors, and other aspects of the book's biography. Collins, with his knack for sussing out intriguing details about anything at all (Nancy Pearl has written "I'm pretty sure that if Paul Collins wrote a history of the Detroit phone book, I would read and enjoy that too"), makes the thrills of bibliographic research jump off the page.

Our author ably captures the vagaries of seventeenth-century publication practices and the brutal copyright battles of the eighteenth century (by the end of which Samuel Johnson and David Garrick had rehabilitated the First Folio's standing in the scholarly world and made the books collector's items). The nineteenth century brought the first scholarly census of First Folios (by Thomas Frognall Dibdin, in a footnote in his Library Companion), plus efforts to create photographic facsimiles of the book. Henry Clay Folger's obsessive collecting of Folios necessarily is treated at length (79 of the 228 known copies are at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC), and Collins concludes with a visit to the campus of Meisei University in Japan, which holds 12 First Folios of its own (and has a detailed website devoted to the books).

In visiting many of the sites which now house First Folios, Collins was able to view many of them himself (though not as many as the great Folio census-maker Anthony James West, who Collins also spends some time with in the book). His descriptions of the artifacts themselves are wonderful: Samuel Johnson's copy, covered with foodstains which seem to correspond remarkably with Johsnon's favorite plays, leads Collins to muse "Books bear a tangible presence alongside their ineffable quality of thought: they have a body and a soul" (p. 111). The "Meisei Folio" (one of the twelve copies in Japan) is in its original binding, and was heavily annotated by the man who was probably the book's very first owner (Collins suggests University of Aberdeen professor William Johnstone, some of whose books apparently went to the University of Abderdeen library - one hopes that perhaps a confirmed book of his also might contain marginalia which could be compared ...)

Collins also provides perhaps the most useful survey I've read of reproduction techniques and technologies, from entire resettings of type for the later handpress editions of the Folio (and later the smaller-format editions) to photographic facsimiles and now to digital scans which make examination, comparison, and collation of the Folios by scholars around the world easier than it's ever been (although in some cases removes the experience of the "genuine article"). The Hinman collator and other, more modern scholarly tools for comparing different copies of books even get their due!

In chronicling the creation, sale, study, and even destruction of First Folios from their genesis in 1623 to the 21st century, Collins has provided a pitch-perfect popular history of this amazingly rich and complicated story. This is a book that anyone with even a passing interest in Shakespeare, books, reading, or bibliography will want to devour. And the twenty-page section of further readings at the back is a superb contribution in its own right. I confess, I've already ordered a few things from it, including the first two volumes of West's census (of a projected five).

Read this book.


The Book Prowler said...

Thank you, Jeremy, for this timely review. I've just received my ARC and look forward to diving in (even more so now with your recommendation). I saw your review in LibraryThing.

JBD said...

Enjoy it! I liked it so much I had to order the "real" version too :-)