‘The Book of William’ Explores Shakespeare By Focusing on the First Folio

Paul Collins has done something I’d previously considered impossible. My brain tends to reject anything to do with Shakespeare. I try to read the plays but they just hit the back wall of my head with a wet splat. Adaptations are fine; I love West Side Story and Ran, but if it’s got the word “Shakespeare” on the cover or poster, I’m lost. But Collins’ The Book of William is amazing; I read through it in a couple days.

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 died. The Book of William is about the literal book of William — namely, the 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, considering all the blurbs 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. (As well as the histories of some of the more unfortunate Folios, including 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, respectively) — 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.

Previously published Sept. 15, 2009.

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