To celebrate publication week, I’ll take five days and take a closer look at five cool rare books that play important roles in The Bookman’s Tale.
Today: Number Four
Shakespeare’s First Folio.
In The Bookman’s Tale, Peter Byerly reads all of his college Shakespeare assignments out of a copy of the 1623 First Folio. Keeping in mind that Peter was an undergraduate in the mid-1980s, the Folio would have been worth something around $750,000 to $1 million. Peter has to handle the book carefully, wearing white cotton gloves that were common in rare book rooms at the time. That the fictional librarian Francis Leland allows Peter to read such a valuable book on a regular basis is indicative of his belief that books, no matter their value, are meant to be read.
The First Folio is considered the only reliable source for the text of twenty of Shakespeare’s plays. Without it, we would have only about half as many plays by the Bard as we have. It is remarkable that so many of Shakespeare’s plays survive, especially when we consider that of some three thousand plays staged in London between the time of Shakespeare’s birth and the closing of the theatres by the Puritans in 1642, 80%, according to Bill Bryson, are known only by title. Bryson writes in his study Shakespeare, that only 230 plays survive from Shakespeare’s time; 38 of those are by Shakespeare. Is there any other body of work in English literature for which a single author is responsible for 15% of the surviving texts? As a culture, we certainly owe a great debt to Henry Condell and John Hemminges who assembled the First Folio. For myself, so far I have only seen copies of the First Folio in glass cases at museums and rare book libraries. 228 copies are known to exist, of those 82 are in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Henry Clay Folger, the great Shakespeare collector appears as a minor character in The Bookman’s Tale. I can’t imagine what a bibliographic thrill it would be to meet a librarian like Francis Leland—one who felt that a novelist who featured the First Folio prominently in a book might enjoy the chance to hold a copy in his hands, and to flip and read a few of those pages that have given our culture so much. But until I meet that person, I’ll continue to enjoy looking at the First Folio under glass whenever I have the chance.
Tomorrow: Number Three.