Endpaper Pradeep Sebastian

The folio obsession

The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays.  

My interest in the millionaire couple, Emily and Henry Folger, who doggedly pursued and hunted down 82 of the 244 extant copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, peaked when I made a lucky find in a bookshop. This was an uncommon pamphlet written by the notorious antiquarian book dealer Rosenbach (made scarcer for being inscribed by Dr. R) on how Folger collected his Shakespeare. Up until then I had little interest in Folger (though like many a bibliophile I knew of his famed bibliophilic exploits), and only a little more interest in the object of his book chase: the First Folio. I had never quite felt its literary or bibliographical aura the way most bibliophiles have, but reading Rosenbach on Folger put it in a new context for me: the excitement of the hunt, the lure of the chase as felt not by a rich collector but one impassioned enough to spend a whole year’s salary to acquire one rare book when he could hardly afford it.

The Millionaire and The Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2015) — Andrea Mays’ book on Henry Folger’s obsessive hunt for multiple copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio — likewise dwells on the intricacies of the rare book chase, making this well-known tale of hard won publishing triumph, bibliomania, scholarship and wealth irresistible to a bibliophile. What is the aura of the First Folio that it has become one of the most expensive (if not the rarest), and hotly desired books to collect in the 21st century? (The last complete copy sold for $7 million). When Shakespeare’s First Folio (actual title: Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies) was published in 1623 for one pound (not cheap then; a year’s salary for a skilled tradesman in London was £4), it was not an entirely obscure publication (few literary books printed then were done in folio size), though it did go mostly unheralded.

Only half of Shakespeare’s plays had been printed, mostly as quartos until the Folio came along. It included many unpublished plays that may have been lost to us entirely — Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, Julius Caesar. John Heminges and Henry Condell, two actors who had been part of Shakespeare’s theatre company The King’s Men, gathered these plays in one edition and decided they were good enough to be in folio, not quarto, size. Such a book project was considered a financial risk, a folly. The Folio was expected in the market by April 1622 (it was included in that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair’s catalogue as one of the books printed!) but the Folio came out only in 1623.

Folger rose from the rank of a mid-level employee at Standard Oil Company to become its President and Chairman in the 1920s. This gave him enormous resources to buy what he wanted and he chose books, in particular as many copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio as he could acquire. Of the extant copies, many of which are incomplete with missing pages, most are in institutional collections, with The Folger Shakespeare Library holding a stupendous 82. One man’s work — rather a couple’s, for his wife Emily equally shared Folger’s obsession — eventually resulted in the founding of the Folger library. Emily teamed up with Henry to bring this remarkable collection together, and one of the sacrifices they made in order to make this possible was to stay in a rented house in Brooklyn while their large holdings of the First Folios were secreted away in vaults and warehouses.

What kept me engrossed in Andrea Mays’ account of Folger’s Folio hunting exploits is the focus on the early days when he struggled to acquire them, often not being able to afford a copy at the going price. Folger had been a reader with a love for Shakespeare and what got him started was winning a Fourth Folio printed in 1685 at an auction for $107.50. Henry and Emily were besotted by the book’s physical qualities: the creamy rag paper, the fine printing, and by the sheer bibliographical thrill of owning a Shakespeare first edition. In college where they had met, their reading of Shakespeare had been from reprints or cheap paperbacks. Folger became determined to go after the First Folios, the hardest of them all to acquire, especially a first copy that eluded him much since the collector who owned it kept Henry Folger dangling — will he sell it or won’t he?

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 9:25:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/pradeep_sebastian/pradeep-sebastian-on-andrea-mays-the-millionaire-and-the-bard/article7485156.ece

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