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The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World Hardcover – July 7, 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (July 7, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596911956
  • ISBN-13: 978-1596911956
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #293,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Undoubtedly, the Bard himself would be amused to learn all about the fate of the book compiled after his death by fellow actors and colleagues John Heminge and Henry Condell. It was, a collector said recently, the most important secular work of all time. Collins (Sixpence House), an English professor and NPR regular, is passionate, knowledgeable and sassy in bringing this story to glorious life. Collins divides his work into five acts, leading his reader on a whirlwind trip through the Four Folios eventually printed, into feuds between Alexander Pope and Lewis Theobald and to the opportunistic reach of a financially desperate Dr. Johnson. Over the next 200 years, there are the stories of Henry Clay Folger as well as an ingenious collating machine and related technologies for today's textual scholars. Collins's remarkable voyage through time and across the globe leads to Japan, where the most obsessive collectors of Sheikusupia reside. This is for anyone with an interest in how Shakespeare has come down to us, the nature of the book business, the art of editing and the evolution of
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“[A] lively and entertaining history of one of the most important books in English literature." —New York Times Book Review

"[The First Folio's] 386-year history is perfect for Collins' peripatetic narrative style... Collins is pleasant company on these journeys through musty and scholarly byways; fans of Bill Bryson... might find the style similar... This is great, informative fun." —Oregonian

"Collins' journey is that of a man stirred by ancient callings: Here is a tireless time traveler and researcher, focusing our attention on the beauty inherent in obscure and sacred objects." —San Francisco Chronicle
"Paul Collins gives bookishness a good name... The Book of William...follows his obsession to the root of all bibliomania - Shakespeare's exceedingly rare, ultra-collectible First Folio... The author proves himself to be an amusing, if unlikely guide... Collins' purpose here [is] not to sing Shakespeare's praises (as if they still need to be sung), but to show, through the quintessential example, how much we humans can invest in the printed word." - Boston Globe
"Gleefully astonishing... Collins provides one of the most enjoyable examples of a most enjoyable genre, the book biography, as he tells the stories of individual Shakespeare first folios, their owners, their uses, and their travels. It’s a supremely enlightening journey that Collins’ convivial manner makes thoroughly gratifying." —Booklist
"[A] delightful literary ramble... Full of humor, history and travel, The Book of William is an excellent summer read." —Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Collins knows his way around a good literary mystery, and knows how to milk the bizarre and wonderful detail... The Book of William is filled with geeky delights...Collins pours all of the mountainous curiosity and good-hearted wit he showed in his last book, The Trouble with Tom, into The Book of William. Not only is he a first-rate storyteller, he has a keen eye for useful marginalia... It would be easy to say that this is a book for bibliophiles, or theater lovers, and it is. But as far as what some of us want out of our summer reading—to get lost, to learn something, to laugh—we’d make the case for this as the perfect beach read." —Time Out Chicago 

“Exemplary scholar-adventurer writing.”   —Kirkus (starred)

"An entertaining consideration arranged in five acts of the serendipitous social life the [first folio] has experienced over the four centuries of its existence."—Los Angeles Times 

“Smashing…[Collins] is an enthusiastic and amusing writer — a good companion… an adept and committed bibliophile, and in the course of his journey into the history of the Folio’s individual copies, he comes to a not-so-startling realization; books outlive even the greatest of us.”  —Palm Beach Post

"Collins has done it again. This history—spanning the globe and 400 years in the life and fortunes of one of the most famous books in the English language—is not the dry province of historians, bibliophiles, and antiquarians...Witty, detailed, and highly entertaining, it will be appreciated by fans of Shakespeare, history, or human folly." —Library Journal 



More About the Author

Paul Collins is a writer specializing in history, memoir, and unusual antiquarian literature. His 9 books have been translated into 11 languages, and include Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books (2003) and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars (2011). His freelance work includes pieces for the New Yorker, Slate, and New Scientist, and he appears on NPR Weekend Edition as its "literary detective" on odd old books.

Collins lives in Oregon, where he is an Associate Professor of English at Portland State University.

Customer Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars
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This one is about the first printing of a collection of all the plays Shakespeare.
Boyd Hone
I look forward to reading more of his writing and I recommend this book highly to readers interested in Shakespeare and/or book collecting.
C. Gerczak
As with everything Paul Collins writes, he provides a somewhat discursive but extremely entertaining story.
John D. Cofield

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This is an extraordinary book. Written in an appealingly informal style, with clarity and grace, but with a solid underpinning of research and rigorous scholarship, this is a superb examination of the history of the famed "First Folio," the massive volume published in 1623 that collected the plays of William Shakespeare. Paul Collins has worked a small and amazing miracle with this book. He has managed to weave together an exploration of the early publishing history of Shakespeare's plays; an account of changing views of Shakespeare's work and how to edit it for publication; a story of the brawling literary world of eighteenth-century England; a tale of the rise of book-collecting and the antiquarian book trade; a sparkling anecdotal census of existing copies of the First Folio; wonderful biographical sketches of such vital figures in his book as Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's actor friends who edited the First Folio, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Henry Clay Folger, Charlton Hinman; and his own memoir of his quest for the First Folio. I literally could not put this book down, and I am enthusiastically recommending it to everyone I can think of.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Mom of 3 book lovers VINE VOICE on August 15, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Ben Johnson said of his fellow playwright and friend, "He is not of an age, but for all time," but if it weren't for two of his business partners and fellow actors, the world might not know William Shakespeare at all.

If you have ever been in an English lit class, you've read Shakespeare. You may have read him more than once. I've read and appreciated his work many times, seen several stage productions, even a couple of movies. Never have I given a thought of how the most important literary works in the English language made it to us from seventeenth-century London.

In his book, The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World, author Paul Collins takes us on a journey through the nearly four centuries of First Folio history. After the Bard's death in 1616, John Heminge and Henry Condell, in an effort to preserve their friend's work had his plays printed in a single collection we now know as the First Folio. It wasn't a terribly easy task. When Heminge and Condell began amassing the plays shortly after Shakespears's death, very few papers written in his own hand complete plays, only rough drafts. There were some plays that had been published in quarto, so the men had to make do with what they had and what they remembered. They were the only two men alive who had walked the boards with Shakespeare, had spoken the lines he had written for them and had taken his direction. They alone could identify his work from forgery...and there was forgery. Through dedication and perseverance born of friendship, Heminge and Condell accomplished the most monumental feat in the history of literature. Without the First Folio, eighteen of the plays would have joined Cardenio and Love's Labors Wonne and been lost forever...
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John D. Cofield TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 29, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
You don't have to be a Shakespeare expert to enjoy this fine new work by Paul Collins. This informal and highly engaging study of the First Folio is wide ranging, roaming from London auction houses to Tokyo theaters, but wherever it goes its amusing and intriguing.

The First Folio was produced in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare's death, by men who had known and acted with him. Although Shakespeare was not to be universally recognized as "England's greatest playwright" until more than a century later, the First Folio sold well and was followed by later reprintings, with additions and subtractions, over the next few decades.

As with everything Paul Collins writes, he provides a somewhat discursive but extremely entertaining story. I enjoyed reading about the efforts being made to trace the original First Folios, and was amazed to discover that so many of them are still in existence with proven paper trails. (On a personal note, I was thrilled to see that one of my own ancestors, Sir Edward Dering, was one of the first purchasers of not one but two First Folios!) I also liked the many "subplots" in the story, particularly the chapters on Samuel Johnson and his edition of the plays. It was also fascinating to read about Shakespeare's role in helping Japan modernize during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to learn that the Japanese still have high regard for the Bard. Finally, I was filled anew with admiration for the painstaking work of editors who have analyzed every line of the First Folios in the ongoing effort to present the plays as Shakespeare intended.

I will keep The Book of William in my "hard to classify but cherished" section of my library, and I'm sure most others who read it will do the same.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Andrew Delaplaine on April 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author has such a light, chatty style (and such an obvious enthusiasm for his work) that the arcane minutia about early book publishing practices goes down like sugar plums.

When I ordered the book, I was writing a young adult novel about a young boy's time-travel back to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre during a performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and I thought this would offer some needed background. Wow! It was so much more captivating than I expected it to be. The personalities involved in promoting the First Folio's rise to prominence are fascinating, from Jaggard to Heminge and Condell all the way down to Henry Clay Folger -- just wonderful stories. This book has made me add a visit to the Folger Library in Washington to my Bucket List.

A most enjoyable read. It was so much fun to read that I limited myself to 2 or 3 chapters per day so it would last longer. I am definitely exploring Paul Collins's other titles, as this is the first one I've read, having noticed a review in the New York Times. Bravo!
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