Conceits & Ribaldries Included

The Book of William
How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World
Paul Collins
Bloomsbury USA, $25, 288 pp.

Twitter is altering the way we live (or so a Time magazine cover story has informed us). Google is digitizing entire libraries. A blogger for the Web-only Huffington Post attended a White House news conference in June and generated more hoopla than all the mainstream journalists put together.

The online word is ascending so rapidly that ink-on-paper text seems on the verge of obsolescence. But as English professor and NPR contributor Paul Collins reminds us in The Book of William: How Shakespeare’s First Folio Conquered the World, at least one select category of typescript retains value.

That category would be the surviving examples of the “First Folio,” the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed in 1623, seven years after his death. (By that time, some of the plays had already been published individually.) As Collins explains in this engaging synopsis of literary history, fleshed out with evocations of contemporary academia and connoisseurship, the extant copies of the First Folio (some 230, according to one expert he interviews) are among the world’s most coveted and diligently chronicled tomes. The Book of William depicts TV news cameramen rubbing shoulders with bibliophiles at Sotheby’s auctions, and eggheads poring over marginalia in libraries with bank-...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.