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Paul Collins has done something I’d previously considered impossible. See, I’ve got this thing in my brain that makes anything explicitly Shakespearian hit the back wall of my brain with a wet splat. Adaptations can work — I like West Side Story and Ran, but if it’s got the word “Shakespeare” on the cover or poster, I’m lost… well, with the exception of the Baz Luhrmann William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. I could follow enough to know I hated that.
But here is Paul Collins’ The Book of William and I read through it in a few days — it’s really, really great. Then again, not only is all of Collins’ stuff really super-great, but his book isn’t really ABOUT Shakespeare. In fact, the earliest scenes take place about five years after he croaked. It’s more truthfully about the publishing of Shakespeare’s First Folio and what happens to books after they’re sold.
Collins’ work is always full of asides — which are always at least as engaging as the main text; one of my favorites is about the dangers of asking for blurbs for your book. The person in question asked so many people for them, most of whom hadn’t read his work nor liked him very much… but still contributed introductions, to the point where it was longer than the actual text itself. Unfortunately, those were all dedicated to revealing the stupidity, homeliness, lack of talent and other such foibles of the author. But, apparently HE didn’t read them either, as they were published!
The book interleaves two narratives; one of Paul Collins’ modern day tracking down of many different famous First Folios, and the histories of the volumes themselves (and some of their more unfortunate brethren, like the copy that found its way into being fishwrap in Spain). Like Collins’ previous books, Not Even Wrong and Banvard’s Folly, he writes is an historically rigorous manner when it comes to facts, but with a more casual prose that makes his stuff incredibly fun to read. Structurally, this book is probably closest to Not Even Wrong or The Trouble with Tom (about the history of Autism and Thomas Paine’s corpse, repsectively) — if you’ve read those, and you should, you should know more or less what to expect.
Even if, like me, you’re not a Shakespeare fan, but a books-in-general type of person, you’ll like this one a lot (and — if that’s the case, probably already know Collins because of Sixpence House). But if you like history and don’t know Collins, check his work out. Pretty much any volume of his is an equally good starter. In fact, you might as well just get the whole set. This goes double if you’re a Sarah Vowell fan — she’s got a similar style of prose, though Collins is a bit more of a generalist when it comes to his topics. And, well, if you’re not familiar with HER work, you might as well pick up her complete set too.
You better snap to, you’ve got a lot of reading to do.