First, I must applaud the author and his team. They have done astounding detective work to track down, identify and extensively catalog the known First Folio's out in the world. The amount of detail put into this effort is truly mind boggling. The knowledge and expertise that the author and the team have is amazing.
The book gives an initial overview of WHAT the First Folio is and what its significance is in the literary world. This description is interesting and educational. From my own studies, I'd heard the basic overview before…the comparison of the Folio versus the Quarto, the timing of how the Folios came about, etc. The overview also goes into the rarity of the Folio as a medium and with regards to the Shakespeare Folio specifically.
After the overview of the Folio history, the rest of the book follows the history of some of the known copies of the Shakespeare Folio still in existence. It is amazing the degree of detail recorded about these books…not only about their history and lineage of ownership, but also about identifying characteristics (down to creases or stains on specific areas of specific pages).
Each chapter was usually focused on the specific history of one of the known surviving Folios, though some chapters were more thematic in describing similar events or occurrences that happened to numerous Folios.
There were dozens of fun and interesting stories of theft, vandalism, fraud, mistaken identity (both of ownership and of the Folio itself) and more. Some stories were more interesting than others and the amount of research and detail for each story was always impressive.
Where the book was lost on me was the narrative style. For some reason, I never did find myself gripped by the writing, even by the most exciting or intriguing of the histories. I think this was partly due to the number of stories and the rapidity of their telling. Even with the amount of details involved, each story usually only covered a few pages and often only a few paragraphs. Add to this that the language was often steeped in scholarship and focused on presenting everything as factual as possible, and these brief stories read more like a history textbook than an exciting retelling of intrigue and suspicion (as promised by the summary).
I still found the book to be very interesting and informative. It told me a lot more about the Folios than I ever knew before and it also gave me a ton of interesting little tales of intrigue within the book world. But the book never hit home for me as the compelling read I was expecting based on the synopsis. I suspect it will have a narrow audience that may be even more narrow due to maintaining so scholarly and deep. I feel like it could have broadened its appeal by providing more engaging narratives and I'm sure this could be done without sacrificing the academic nature of the book.
This isn't a bad book…in fact, it is an excellent book. But it's certainly not going to be for everyone. I'm worried that the publishing and marketing team of this book is going to lose its audience by presenting the book as something it's not. The title, the synopsis, the quotes/blurbs, etc all suggest that you're looking at a literary thriller. If you go into this book looking for an academic thriller from someone like Eco (or the more pulp-fiction version like Brown), you'll come away disappointed. If you go in looking for a scholarly analysis on the Folio, then this book is a masterpiece and will leave you very fulfilled.
3 out of 5 stars
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