Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stealing Shakespare--The Shakespeare Thefts (book review)

Photo: A 1623 First Folio in the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London.  From the Wikipedia page, "First Folio."

Extremely easy-to-read and interesting book, but probably only for those interested in Shakespeare, his folios, or really old books.  I talked about this recently with a friend and she just rolled her eyes.

But I thought it was interesting, and the author's fascination and joy of his subject also leaps off the page.  He clearly loves what he does, and he is clearly very knowledgeable of what he does.

What is that, exactly?  Well, he's a Shakespearean scholar, and an overall authority on the 1623 Folio, and its 250 or so copies out there, out of the 750 total copies that had been made in 1623--and sold without binding.  If you were alive in 1623, and if you bought the First Folio, you bought it in manuscript form--a pile of paper (or cloth, actually), and then you paid one pound extra (25% of your yearly average income in 1623) to have it bound, often in calf-skin.  (The author, Eric Rasmussen, believes there are maybe 250 more out there, somewhere, possibly in boxes in libraries--or in somebody's attic.)  His lifelong ambition: to very minutely survey and catalog every single copy of the 1623 Folio out there.  To authenticate every page of every folio out there.  To find missing folios.  Why?  Because they're frequently stolen, because even one in poor condition is worth a few million, and because...well, because he's sort of a fanatic about it.  And I mean that in a very, very complimentary way.  Had I the education of this stuff, and the time and the money, I would definitely join him on his travels.  Though the whole waiting, and the dealing with people, I would have to leave to he and his team.  I mean, if there were a painting of the real Shakespeare (there probably isn't one), wouldn't you want to own it, regardless of the value?  (Rasmussen bought a painting he hoped would be of Shakespeare, since the provenance made it a possibility.  But his purchase had been painted over.  He still hopes it's Shakespeare, but it isn't.)

I don't know how to explain the joy someone would have about reading stuff like this, except to maybe give you an example.  I'm sort of a nut about old baseball cards as well.  The cream of the crop for such things is the 1909-1911 T206 Honus Wagner card, which even in poor condition is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.  A very good one sold recently for seven million dollars.  People are absolutely fanatic about this card.  Many would steal it, if given the chance--and not for the money.  Just for the chance to hold one.  And to own one?  Heaven.  Bliss.  I feel that, too.  I saw one a few years ago at the New York Public Library in Manhattan.  Someone thought it would be a great idea to paste that one to a scrapbook page, so that all anyone would ever see of that card is the front of it.  Not only does this greatly reduce its value, but it's not about the money--it's about the awesomeness of the card itself.  If you can say, "So the hell what?" then maybe this book isn't for you.  But if that makes you grind your teeth with frustration and anger, because some idiot made it impossible for anyone ever again to turn that card over to see the back, you'd enjoy this book.  The card is so awesome that it deserves to get turned over and seen in its totality, you know?  ::sigh::

The stories in this book about the trials and tribulations that people--and their folios--have undergone over the years matches the above example.  People have stolen them just to have a copy.  Just to hold it in their hands, to flip through the cloth pages, to...You get the idea.  Being a Bardolater (supreme lover of Shakespeare) is probably a must to feel this way about the folios--which Shakespeare himself never got to touch.  They were edited and collected by Henry Condell and John Heminges, actor friends of Shakespeare's, at great personal cost, in terms of money and of their effort and time, and published in 1623.  Shakespeare died in 1616.  If you didn't know any of this (I did), then maybe this book isn't for you.  If the thought of holding one and leafing through its pages makes you giddy, then it is.  I bought a facsimile of the 1623 Folio at a consignment store for $38, which still feels like a bargain to me.  I have to admit that I'm a Bardolater.

You'll learn how some of them were stolen, how some were returned, how some are missing, and how some have mysteriously disappeared.  For example: Sir Thomas Phillipps, compulsive collector of tens of thousands of very old and very valuable books, had a son-in-law who was in the habit of cutting up very old and very valuable books and scrapbooking some of his snippets.  (If this makes you recoil in horror, as it does me, you'll want to read this book.)  Well, this made Phillipps horrified as well, so to make sure that this son-in-law (married to Phillipps's only child) wouldn't cut up and scrapbook anything in his collection after he died, he had his entire vast library moved out of his mansion and moved into another, bigger, mansion, in 1863.  He then had a will made up that said that nothing could be taken out of this second mansion, and that this son-in-law, and Phillipps's daughter, couldn't go into this mansion.  (He had to do this because the first mansion hadn't been originally his, and his descendant had a will that didn't have these restrictions.)


--this mansion was so huge that he rode a horse from room to room.

--it was so huge that prepared food would be served cold because the kitchen was so far away from the dining room.

--the book collection was so vast that Phillipps had to hire 175 men to drive 250 cart horses pulling 125 wagons to this second mansion 20 miles away.  This took a few years.

And it didn't matter.  Someone, probably the daughter or the son-in-law, stole the 1623 Folio anyway.  And it's been missing ever since.

If the thought of a 1623 Folio being cut up and mutilated, and of a couple of these mutilations being scrapbooked, doesn't make you grit your teeth, Rasmussen's book isn't for you.  Ditto, if you can't understand why someone would have so many books.  I have a few thousand, none of them very valuable, so I can completely understand this.

Anyway, if owning a 1623 Folio just to own it, regardless of value, sounds super-awesome to you, read this book.  It's a very fast and enjoyable read, at just 172 pages, minus acknowledgements and notes, which are sort of interesting as well.  (The 1623 Folio, by comparison, had over 900 pages, and cost one pound--about 25% of the average worker's salary in 1623.)

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