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ENDPAPER

Into Shakespeare's world

PRADEEP SEBASTIAN

A witty, intriguing and finely detailed peek into Shakespeareana.

Photo: courtesy Paul Collins

Paul Collins:A cool literary detective.

One day, Paul Collins, author of strange biographies such as interesting, droll failures who didn't change the world and lover of old and odd books, decided to move with his family from San Francisco to the book town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. He felt overcome by a powerful feeling to relocate, buy a house there and write. But he also wanted to move his library there, some few thousand books.

When Six Pence House begins, he is considering his freight options at the post office — or is it Fed Ex? — I forget now (the book was read some years ago). He was pretty stubborn and brave about it, and did move his wife and little baby there and out of this came Six Pence House, about a writer lost in town of books. What I remember most about the book isn't the details about the town's famous second-hand bookshops, but his witty ramblings about trying to find the right house, and how his family coped with the move.

Airy narrative

Collins doesn't cram his books with everything he finds out, so it doesn't feel geeky. The narrative is airy, light, slimmed-down, not thick and intricate. Yet, once you get over the disappointment that he isn't telling you everything he knows, you feel grateful that he lets you finish his book. He's a cool literary detective, laconic and terse with sharing his deep and wily knowledge of the case he's investigating, parting with the facts — often amusing new trivia — just when you think he's rambling on. Take his new book, The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World, where a reader, even a Shakespeare scholar, can discover things about the creation of the First Folio and its ensuing bibliographical history that is obscure, hidden, surprising. Research that isn't wide or common knowledge; details he pursued and teased out.

It begins at a rare book auction at Sotheby's where Collins ignores the high spots on display — a signed copy of Dracula, a first edition of Ulysses, Oscar Wilde's personal correspondence, Sylvia Plath's doodle of a teapot — and has eyes only for the First Folio, the reason he has turned up in this auction house. It lies inside a large glass display case, “reclining on a velvet pillow, where it luxuriates like a monarch…a stout, unadorned leather binding…still in an original 17th century brown calfskin and has all its original papers of text. That's almost unheard of.” When someone in the auction room asks a Sotheby's expert why the First Folio matters, he says flatly: “It's the most important work in English literature, and indeed the most important secular work of all time.”

When Shakespeare's First Folio (its actual title: Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies) was published in 1623, it was just another book out of the press. It cost one pound (not cheap then; one could buy several dozen loaves of bread for it) and if not entirely obscure, it mostly went unnoticed. Those who bought it then for a pound didn't know what they had in their hand — one of the most expensive (if not the rarest), and hotly desired books in the 21st century — and eventually lost sight of it.

Paul Collins' book is a quest to pursue, examine and tell the story of those still surviving impeccable copies. Out of a thousand copies possibly printed, about 228 remain.

It nearly didn't happen, this coming into existence of a printed book of Shakespeare's plays since, in his lifetime, S never authorised any editions. The Bard had some of them written in his own hand and didn't bother to publish them.

A printer named William Jaggard spotted S's talent and pirated a version of his poems. S was miffed at this pirated copy doing the rounds, but even that didn't get him to gather his work together in a book.

After his death, two actors who knew him as friend and colleague, John Heminge and Henry Condell, ironically commissioned Jaggard to print the plays. For some texts they only had rough drafts in S's own hand, while for others they had to collate from various old, half baked publications (cheap, illicit quarto editions) buried in bookshops.

But they did it (and along with it commissioned that all too familiar portrait of S, our only source of what he may have looked like, as the frontispiece for the Folio) after intense debate, discussion and literary sleuthing, and created the first Folio. (The First, though with more textual errors than the Second, Third and Fourth Folio, is coveted and prized above all else because it is the closest representation of the Bard's words, copied in large part from his own handwritten editions).


Inter-continental investigation

Some of what we learn from the book is available (or researchable) knowledge, but a lot of it comes to light with Collins' inter-continental investigation — London, Manhattan, Tokyo. Collins is an impassioned literary detective who chases after details, and ends up finding so many, that his telling becomes rambling marginalia. So, this isn't just a bibliographical history of the First Folio, but also a witty, intriguing and finely detailed peek into Shakespeareana.

The Book of William encompasses the obsessive acquisition by Folio collectors (Henry Folger and several Japanese gentleman) hotly pursuing this literary treasure, 18th century copyright battles, the ingenious methods of First Folio scholars to collate and authenticate editions, the destruction of these uncommon editions, facsimiled and scanned copies, the machinations of 17th century publishers on Fleet Street and several other quaint digressions such as the history of stuttering.

Collins points to Samuel Johnson's own food-stained Folio copy, remarking: “Books bear a tangible presence alongside their ineffable quality of thought: they have a body and a soul.”

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