by Paul Collins
It’s not much of an exaggeration at all for me to say that if Paul Collins happened to write a book about – say – the history of Seattle as recounted through its Yellow Pages, I’d immediately request it from my neighborhood library and probably spend the next few days doing nothing but reading it. That is a somewhat roundabout way of saying that since I’ve thoroughly enjoyed everything that Collins has ever written, I’d follow him — literarily — everywhere. I am happy to report that his newest offering is another must read: perfect for history buffs, Shakespeare fans, and anyone who enjoys learning – painlessly – about a slightly abstruse topic.
The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World (Bloomsbury, 2009) explores the fate of the collection of the Bard of Avon’s plays that was assembled and edited after his death by his fellow actors and friends John Heminge and Henry Condell. In describing the peregrinations of this collection of plays over the next 400 years, Collins introduces us to a wide assemblage of folks whose lives and interests, as readers, writers, or publishers, had an impact on the world of Shakespeareana. He describes the role of various editors and Shakespeare scholars in the history of the folio, including Samuel Johnson (who worked on an edition of the plays and evidently read even while he was eating), poet Alexander Pope, and Henry Clay Folger, the one-time president of Standard Oil of New York and great amasser of everything Shakespeare (and who, along with his wife, founded the Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. that bears his name). With wit and good will (ha!), not to mention an unabashed enthusiasm for his topic, Collins helps us understand the importance to the world of the First Folio, how publishing has changed (and not) since the 16th century, and what’s known about the fate of the approximately 1,000 copies that were originally printed of Heminge and Condell’s manuscript. Collins writes history the way you wish every historian did: accessible, interesting, and meaningful. I interviewed Collins on my television show and was totally charmed.