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February 29, 2016

The Book of William

TThe Book of Williamhe Book of William

By Paul Collins

Shakespeare’s First Folio: no printed book has had each copy so obsessively cataloged, studied, and coveted. Scholars study and analyze past owners’ doodles in the margins, and some specialize in examining the stress on the type to determine in which order the page was printed. The subject could be as dry as dust, but in Paul Collins’s hands, the folios’ stories come to life.

Seven years after Shakespeare died, his surviving business partners, John Heminge and Henry Condell, collected almost every play he wrote into a single volume called a folio. Without this book, most of Shakespeare’s works, including some of his best-loved works, wouldn’t have survived. Early 17th-century printing being what it was – semi-literate typesetters referring to handwritten pages while manually placing every letter – each page was being edited even as it was being printed, and punctuation, spelling, and even entire lines can vary from copy to copy. The finished copies from this first print run are called the First Folios, and the 233 known copies are now considered superior to, and far more desirable than, all later editions.

Collins visits many of the folios available for viewing, including the 82 at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. and the 12 at Meisei University in Japan, as well those housed in other institutions throughout Britain and the United States. To understand why the folios are revered, he delves into the book trade of the time and Shakespeare’s posthumous rise to prominence with sidelines into Japanese theater, the beginnings of literary criticism, and the world of rare books with entertaining anecdotes sprinkled throughout.

Review By: Julia Welzen