The Book of William How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World

Paul Collins Paul Collins

Bloomsbury USA




256 Pages



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When Shakespeare's First Folio, the first complete collection of his plays, appeared in 1623, its publication went practically unnoticed. A few decades later, at the first recorded auction of the book, it failed to fetch even half its original cover price. Now, with only a few remaining, the First Folio has become the great white whale of rare books—a cornerstone of our cultural heritage and a connoisseur's dream.

Paul Collins, intrepid bibliophile, traces the First Folio's strange and marvelous journey through the centuries and across continents, as it is dusted off in attics, auctioned off for millions, sunk in oceans, consumed by fires, annotated, copied, and immortalized. The result is a brilliant history of one incomparable book.


Praise for The Book of William

"Could you imagine a world without Macbeth or A Midsummer Night's Dream? If the answer is no, direct your thanks to John Heminge and Henry Condell, Elizabethan theater producers who assembled a posthumous compilation of the work of their friend and peer William Shakespeare after he died in 1616. Without their foresight, Shakespeare might have been remembered as 'just another industrious quill-scratcher,' Collins writes in this lively and entertaining history of one of the most important books in English literature. Part antiquarian-book primer, part chronicle of literary curiosities, The Book of William is divided into five acts, each evoking a significant place and time in the First Folio's colorful history."—Megan Busky, The New York Times Book Review

"An entertaining consideration arranged in five acts of the serendipitous social life the [First Folio] has experienced over the four centuries of its existence . . . Writing in a style that is light and casual, Collins makes productive use of a vast body of Shakespeare scholarship."—Los Angeles Times

"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 . . . [His] 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 meaning we humans can invest in the printed word."—The Boston Globe

"Collins knows his way around a good literary mystery, and knows how to milk the bizarre and wonderful detail . . . [He] pours all of [his] mountainous curiosity and good-hearted wit . . . into The Book of William . . . 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."—Time Out Chicago

"Highly engaging . . . If you previously imagined that the words 'page-turner' and 'Shakespeare' did not belong in the same sentence, this could be the book that changes your mind."—Christian Science Monitor

"[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."—The Oregonian

"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 is the best sort of popular historian: someone who can make the obscurest facts and people absorbing and entertaining."—Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust

"The intricate, improbable story of how the first collection of Shakespeare's plays (1623) became the holiest—i.e., most expensive—of grails in Biblioland. Collins comes well equipped for his peripatetic task. Having written about bibliomania and an iconic historical figure (Thomas Paine), the author also possesses a lively curiosity and, to the enlightenment of readers of this galloping, globetrotting romp, an impressive travel allowance. As the Folio publishers divided the Bard's plays into five acts, so too does Collins arrange his tale. Act One opens in a contemporary London auction room—a Folio sold for £2.5 million—but Collins soon returns to the 1620s to watch the surviving Globe colleagues of the recently deceased Shakespeare arrange with printer William Jaggard to print the 36 plays they have assembled—18 of which, Collins reminds us, didn't exist anywhere else. No Folio would mean no Twelfth Night, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest or other gems. Collins then follows these First Folios through the centuries, pausing occasionally to educate us about the manufacture of paper, the difference between a folio and a quarto and the reputation of playwrights in general, Shakespeare in particular. Only obliquely does Collins address the 'authorship question,' noting slyly that a Japanese scholar was the first to notice that all the flowers mentioned in the plays grow in the vicinity of Stratford-upon-Avon. The author also looks at the editions of the Bard's plays that appeared after 1623—there were subsequent folios and editions by Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson—and sheds some light on Bard-saving heroes unknown to lay readers—notably Lewis Theobald, who was so alarmed at the errors in Pope's edition that he prepared his own. To see the best copies of the Folios, Collins interviewed experts and traveled from the vault of the Folger Shakespeare Library to a Japanese academic library. Exemplary scholar-adventurer writing."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"[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

"[The Book of William is] 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

"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, 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 copyright law. A 20-page 'Further Readings' section is by itself a sheer delight."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Paul Collins Paul Collins

  • Paul Collins is an assistant professor of English at Portland State University and the author of Sixpence House, The Trouble with Tom, Not Even Wrong, and Banvard's Folly. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times, and Slate. He edits the Collins Library imprint of McSweeney's Books and appears regularly on NPR's Weekend Edition as the show's resident literary detective.