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The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios

The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios

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The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios

3.5/5 (15 evaluări)
201 pages
2 hours
Oct 11, 2011


Part literary detective story, part Shakespearean lore, The Shakespeare Thefts will charm the Bard's many fans.

The first edition of Shakespeare's collected works, the First Folio, published in 1623, is one of the most valuable books in the world and has historically proven to be an attractive target for thieves. Of the 160 First Folios listed in a census of 1902, 14 were subsequently stolen-and only two of these were ever recovered.

In his efforts to catalog all these precious First Folios, renowned Shakespeare scholar Eric Rasmussen embarked on a riveting journey around the globe, involving run-ins with heavily tattooed criminal street gangs in Tokyo, bizarre visits with eccentric, reclusive billionaires, and intense battles of wills with secretive librarians. He explores the intrigue surrounding the Earl of Pembroke, arguably Shakespeare's boyfriend, to whom the First Folio is dedicated and whose personal copy is still missing. He investigates the uncanny sequence of events in which a wealthy East Coast couple drowned in a boating accident and the next week their First Folio appeared for sale in Kansas. We hear about Folios that were censored, the pages ripped out of them, about a volume that was marked in red paint-or is it blood?-on every page; and of yet another that has a bullet lodged in its pages.

Oct 11, 2011

Despre autor

ERIC RASMUSSEN is Professor of English at the University of Nevada. He is co-editor of the Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama and the author of The Shakespeare Thefts. He is the General Textual Editor of the Internet Shakespeare Editions project – one of the most visited Shakespeare websites in the world. Since 1999 he has written the annual review of editions and textual studies for the Shakespeare Survey.

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The Shakespeare Thefts - Eric Rasmussen



Every book comes with a story, and great books, like comets, often carry in their wake a tail of great stories. Eric Rasmussen, who with a team of fellow scholars is engaged in tracking and examining every known copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, has unearthed wonderful anecdotes of theft, fraud, and the peculiar mania of passionate bibliophiles.

—Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

A page-turner, a series of detective stories and a work of scholarship all at once—Eric Rasmussen brings to life a truly Shakespearean cast of characters as he tracks the First Folio down the centuries and around the world.

—Jonathan Bate, author of Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s First Folio contains thirty-six plays of wit, passion, crime, and folly. In this brisk and amusing account, Eric Rasmussen tells us how the book itself has been the cause of wit, passion, crime, and folly in those who seek to own one of the surviving copies.

—Peter Saccio, author of Shakespeare’s English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama

"Eric Rasmussen’s fascinating and hugely enjoyable collection of tales about the fate of individual copies and of his own experiences accumulating the data for a census of the surviving copies is a joy from first to last. Stories of thefts old and new, of copies mutilated or destroyed, and of the mania of book-collecting cover the centuries from its first purchasers to its most recent thieves. For anyone who thinks the work of scholarship is as dry as libraries, The Shakespeare Thefts will quickly convince them that it is actually a cross between CSI and big-game hunting."

—Peter Holland, author of William Shakespeare

"The Shakespeare Thefts is an irresistible true-crime story revealing the long history of the desire to own one of the world’s most valuable books. Amidst his captivating tales of unscrupulous scholars, wealthy industrialists, avaricious con men, and even a Pope who wanted to own the First Folio, Rasmussen makes clear his own love for and deep knowledge about the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, gently sneaking in a rich bibliographic history of the book itself as he unfolds his engaging accounts of those who were willing to steal to own it."

—David Scott Kastan, author of Shakespeare and the Book and General Editor of the Arden Shakespeare

With irresistible intrigue like that of fine mystery novels, erudition and rigor characteristic of the most esteemed scholarship, and a delightful readability that only the best popular fiction boasts, this book will bring great joy to a remarkable range of people, from anyone who gives a hoot about Shakespeare to aficionados of literary history to simply lovers of good stories. It is no surprise that a team of researchers assisted Rasmussen, for it more often than otherwise takes a collaboration of brilliant minds to produce extraordinary work. And extraordinary this book is.

—Bryan Reynolds, author of Performing Transversally

Book-trade Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns are very much alive in this entertaining collection of interlocked tales. Purposes mistook fallen on their inventors’ heads, accidental judgments, casual pilferings, and acts which, if not carnal and bloody, are certainly intriguing—all this Rasmussen delivers in recounting his team’s pursuit of the missing First Folios.

—John Michael Archer, author of Citizen Shakespeare









The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy.

For Vicky, Tristan, and Arden

To the great Variety of Readers,

It had been a thing, we confess, worthy to have been wished, that the author himself had lived to have set forth and overseen his own writings. But since it hath been ordained otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envy his friends, the office of their care, and pain, to have collected and published them.

John Heminges and Henry Condell, Epistle to the Shakespeare First Folio


Photographs appear between pages 106 and 107.



There are 232 known copies of the Shakespeare First Folio in the world. A team of First Folio hunters and I have spent over a decade locating and examining surviving copies. These investigations have taken us on a journey around the globe. Along the way, we have uncovered a wealth of fascinating information about folios that have been stolen—or vanished—over the past four hundred years.

To appreciate the importance of the First Folio, bear this in mind: Only half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime. Those that made it into print were produced in cheap paperback form, about the size and shape of comic books, and they were called quartos. They weren’t fancy, but they were popular—so popular that there was ample motivation to get hold of the manuscripts and print them as quickly as possible. Two actors from Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, John Heminges and Henry Condell, complained that manuscripts often were stolen from the playhouse by frauds and stealths and that these surreptitious copies would appear in print without the permission of either the dramatist or the acting company—cutting them out of the profits entirely.¹

So, after Shakespeare died, Heminges and Condell took matters into their own hands and began work on an authorized, prestigious hardcover folio containing all of the playwright’s dramatic works: thirty-six plays, eighteen of which had never been published before. They envisioned an impressive folio, the prestigious format that was used for works by the leading theologians, philosophers, and historians of the age, such as Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), Richard Hooker’s Laws (1611), Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World (1614), and William Camden’s Annals (1615). The groundbreaking edition of Ben Jonson’s Workes (1616) marked the first time that the work of a playwright had ever been published in folio. However, Jonson was mocked by contemporaries, who wryly observed that he seemed not to understand the distinction between work and play. But the Jonson folio included prose and poetry as well as dramatic texts. A folio devoted entirely to plays was unprecedented and represented a considerable financial risk, but Shakespeare’s fellow actors accomplished the task. A magisterial 908-page book resulted, measuring an impressive fourteen inches tall by nine inches wide and three inches thick, arranged into three genres, Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the First Folio.

Expected on the market by mid-1622, it was included in that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair’s catalog as one of the books printed between April 1622 and October 1622. However, the project was a monstrous undertaking, and the book did not actually appear until very late in 1623. It was elegant—an indignant contemporary complained that Shakespeare’s plays are printed on the best crown paper, far better than most Bibles.² Some scholars argue that it was a runaway success, with demand being so great that a second edition—the Second Folio—was required within less than a decade. Others maintain that the First Folio was a financial disaster that bankrupted one of its publishers, Edward Blount.

Either way, if the First Folio hadn’t been published, we would not have The Tragedy of Macbeth or The Taming of the Shrew. Or Twelfth Night. Or Julius Caesar. So we owe a marvelous debt to Heminges and Condell, two actors who, having dipped their toes in the world of publishing, were never to do so again. Their one effort, the First Folio, is regarded, along with the King James Bible, as one of the most significant books in the English language.

There were three reprintings of Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies in the seventeenth century. The Second Folio was published in 1632, the Third Folio in 1664, and the Fourth Folio in 1685, but today, the First Folio of 1623 is the rarest and most coveted. The majority of extant copies are in public institutions; the rest are in the hands of very private collectors, and only rarely are any available for sale. Few of the copies are complete, many have faux pages made by a well-known forger, and all have suffered some damage. Perhaps this makes them more valuable, and too often they go missing.

In their address To the great Variety of Readers in the First Folio (see photo section), Heminges and Condell encouraged prospective users not to read the folio in bookstores but to buy it first, since the fate of the book depended on the capacities not of your heads alone but of your purses. They repeated the imperative with some force: Whatever you do, buy.

The original price of a First Folio, bound in calfskin, was £1—an enormous sum in an age when a skilled tradesman could expect to earn £4 in a year. It put the book squarely within reach of only the wealthy; the earliest known owners include three earls, two bishops, a lord, an admiral, two colonels, an ambassador, a knight, and a lawyer. Over the centuries, not much has changed. Indeed, the privilege of First Folio ownership continues to be something of a fetish among the superrich. In the early years of the twentieth century, railroad magnate Henry Huntington bought four copies, while Henry Clay Folger, president of Standard Oil, acquired an astounding eighty-two copies. In the 1970s and 1980s, Meisei University in Tokyo purchased nearly every copy of the First Folio that came on the market, ultimately accruing a dozen. More recently, in 2001, Paul Allen (cofounder of Microsoft) paid $6 million for a First Folio, and, in the following year, Sir Paul Getty paid $7 million for his.

The Shakespeare Thefts explores what my team of First Folio hunters and I learned while cataloging, in situ, each of the known copies and searching for those that have vanished. Like a Shakespearean play, we uncovered a fascinating world between the covers of one of the world’s most expensive printed books, one populated with thieves, masterminds, fools, and eccentrics, all of whom have risked fortunes and reputations to possess a coveted First Folio.



The Gondomar Copy

No, lord Ambassador, I’ll rather keep that.

Shakespeare’s King Henry VI

England had no resident Spanish ambassador for the latter part of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 had soured things between the two countries. Following the accession of James I in 1603, regular diplomatic relations resumed. Count Gondomar, one of the greatest private collectors of books in Spain (and one of the earliest purchasers of a First Folio), took the post of ambassador in London in 1613. In the early nineteenth century, the bulk of his collection eventually became part of the Spanish Royal Library, but the fate of his First Folio remains shrouded in mystery.

Gondomar arrived in England with a bang, sailing into Portsmouth Harbor surrounded by Spanish warships. Contrary to custom, none of the vessels lowered the Spanish flag. As one can imagine, the English were not amused. In fact, they were enraged. The ranking English naval officer threatened to launch an attack against this new armada if the colors were not struck.

Having gotten everyone’s attention, Gondomar—whose motto was "Osar morir da la vida (risk your life and dare to die)—boarded an English ship and asked that a message be sent to King James. He declared that the flotilla had entered Portsmouth in a spirit of friendship and should be treated accordingly and insisted that he could not with honor strike his sovereign’s colors. Gondomar then requested that, if an English attack was imminent, he be allowed to return to his ship so that he could take part in the fight. The new ambassador had rightly guessed that the peace-loving James—a contemporary epigram described him thus: Rex fuit Elizabeth, nunc est regina Jacobus" (Elizabeth was King, now James is Queen)¹—would not start a war over the presence of a flag on a diplomat’s ship. He was right: The king sent word that

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  • (3/5)
    I thought this was a fascinating concept. So often, we focus on the words Shakespeare wrote and little thought is given to the actual physical text. I would have liked to have learned more about how Rasmussen and his team tracked down the copies of the First Folio that they were able to study and catalog but other than that, it was an interesting read.
  • (4/5)
    Quick read, and interesting to learn the provenances of many copies of the First Folios. Not much about the actual searching and discovering of the process, however.
  • (3/5)
    So fun facts about me: I great up in Stratford (Ontario, not England) and the Festival was a huge part of basically everyone's lives - your parents worked there (yes, my mom did), you knew someone who did, your family business supported the tourists, or you worked there (yep, I did!) and it was basically non optional that you'd go there as a school and then camp field trip (True story, I saw Alice through the Looking Glass 6 times because of school and various camps) (I also hated it) (Sorry Sarah Polly). Unlike most elementary schools (or so I hear) we also studied Shakespeare all through grade school- one of the other schools did this whole big thing where they painted pictures, and their teacher re-wrote the plays to be accessible. My slacker school just had us read these books, and watch cartons. So basically I'm saying that while I'm in no way claiming to be a scholar, I got Shakespeare. My favourite play is Pericles, my favourite character is King Lear and I can explain to you in detail why the Globe, and therein Main Stage have thrust stages. So I was tentatively excited to have won this book, because with great power, comes great responsibility. By that I mean if people find out you're from Stratford, everyone becomes and expert and tells you AT LENGTH everything they know about Shakespeare and blah blah blah. From that, I do know that arguably the First Folio of Shakespeare is one of the most important publications in terms of modern English (the others probably include the King James Bible and a terrifying number of others I'm too tired to be clever about), and I also knew (because this is something we all know in Stratford (you're thrown out if you don't)) that about 1000 copies were printed, and apparently 232 have been accounted for. We know this, because Eric Rasmussen has a crack team of Folio Hunters. True Story, when I was a kid, I wanted to be on this crack team but then oops I got distracted by something shiny.But this is a review, so here you go: Rasmussen formed his team in the mid-90's with the goal of documenting as many surviving copies as possible and determining their provenance - this books is kind of a best of of what his team did. The world they discovered was... fascinating, obsessive and mildly terrifying. I don't really want to get into the stories, because I think that that ruins things, but it includes Cubans, a Pope, a bricklayer and a playboy. I don't really want to get into it, because if you're interested you should just go read it because it's a fun romp through a thoroughly obsessive and mildly insane group of people who are trying to do the impossible because you know that the next copy is hidden in Great Great Aunty Muriel's attic, under a million fur coats and possibly in a trunk that you lost the key to.So here's the thing. I wouldn't recommend this to someone unless I knew they a) loved shakespeare b) loved anecdotes or c) were really into the tracking of loss of historical record (it's a thing, I promise). That all being said, I really did enjoy the book. It's a fast read that make me laugh, taught me things about how books are lost, found and faked and generally was clever and interesting. A lot of the problems I've seen people have with it is that the author didn't get into a lot of detail about the stories - Rasmussen kind of flung the story at you, but glossed over the heavy investigative/academic work that you all know they did. I don't actually have an issue with him having done this- and I think it was the right choice. That stuff he glossed over is intense, and usually not in a way that would be interesting to a lay person reading it. I do admittedly wish he got into a bit more detail with some of the stories I found more interesting, but I think he was going for a kind of overall quick "Hey, this is what we're doing isn't it cool" thing with the book. Basically? Yeah, yeah it is cool.*** I won this book through Goodreads - all opinions are my own.
  • (4/5)
    I love that someone has taken the enormous trouble to catalogue and make detailed examinations of the first editions of a rightly famous book. I love learning about generations of loving or malign ownership. I love reading about dastardly thefts, eccentric Lords, bizarre marginalia and cat prints across pages. I just wish that I could have loved this little volume more. While the bones were there for a great book, I found the narrative too disjointed, and in parts, repetitive. With some judicious and disciplined editing, this could be so much better. If, like me, you enjoy 'books about books', the charming bits will outweigh the minor lapses.
  • (3/5)
    I thought this book was interesting enough. The stories the author tells were able to keep my interest. I am only a passing Shakespeare fan and not a historian, so I can’t testify to the authenticity of the stories.
  • (4/5)
    When I saw the summary on the Early Reviewers request page I quickly jumped over to the "request" button. I studied English in college and absolutely loved renaissance literature, particularly Shakespeare, so I was excited to jump right in as soon as I received the book. Despite being quite familiar with Shakespeare's works, I never really knew much about the plays in physical form, if that makes sense; when I studied them, the folios and what the plays were written on rarely came up as it was the plays themselves that we concentrated on. This book opened my eyes to just how valuable the original folios are and all the mystery and intrigue that occurred as those books changed hands throughout the years. I found this incredibly interesting and was a bit disappointed that the book was less than two hundred pages because this is a subject I'd gladly have read much more about.Reading this book I realized part of what made it so captivating for me: the author clearly loves what he does and that shows through in his writing. I liked all the personal anecdotes about his team's experiences as they worked on tracking down different copies of the folios. While I do realize that frequently Rasmussen gives his own opinions about what could have happened in the past rather than cold hard facts about missing copies, I didn't find this to be a problem and thought it made the book more accessible to a wider audience than if it had been more scholarly.There are only two real flaws I could see with the book. The first is that it is just a sort of introduction into the subject. It isn't particularly in depth and the author does include a lot of personal opinions and speculations, but I do think this to be a really good introduction. It ensnared me and has me wanting to find out more on the subject, anyway! The other problem is that the book was somewhat disjointed; maybe with a bit more editing, the chapters could have fit better together or something like that. Regardless of these two flaws, I really enjoyed this book and I'll give it 4 stars.
  • (3/5)
    The premise to this book sounded like tons of fun. I went into it expecting a "riveting" and intense recounting of the various attempts (successful and failed) to steal the First Folio over the years. What I ended up reading was indeed interesting but not nearly as compelling or intriguing as the numerous marketing blurbs and synopses made me expect.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
  • (3/5)
    Eric Rasmussen, coeditor of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works of William Shakespeare and a professor of English at the University of Nevada, has recently completed (along with Anthony James West, Donald L. Bailey, Mark Farnsworth, Lara Hansen, Trey Jansen, and Sarah Stewart) a 600,000-word work The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue (to be published later this year by Palgrave Macmillan). To accompany that work Rasmussen's penned The Shakespeare Thefts: Stealing the World's Most Famous Book (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).Designed to act something like The Book Nobody Read did for Owen Gingerich's annotated census of Copernicus' works, The Shakespeare Thefts is very much a trade publication, designed for readers with little or no background interest in the First Folio (and for whom Paul Collins' The Book of William would probably provide a better and more entertaining general introduction).The idea behind this book, to profile stolen copies of the First Folio, is a fantastic one, and Rasmussen is at his best when doing just that. The chapters on the Durham University copy (stolen in 1998 and recovered when Raymond Scott walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library with it a decade later) and the Williams College copy (nabbed out of the reading room in 1940 by a fairly dimwitted gang of thugs and returned later that year) are quite well done. Speculation over the copy stolen from Manchester University in 1972 and whether it might be the copy now in the possession of the family of Japanese collector who wrote a provision into his will forbidding access to the book for thirteen years after his death, is tantalizing but just that, speculation.Most frustratingly, several of the other chapters don't actually deal with thefts at all, but simply disappearances of known First Folio copies (many of these stories interesting in their own right though they are), or long digressions into Folio lore (deaths of owners soon after the acquisition of the book, the time the Pope accidentally accepted a First Folio as a gift to the Vatican when he was just supposed to bless the volume) and even stories entirely unrelated to the Folio (like Rasmussen's purchase of a 17th-century portrait which turned out not to be of Shakespeare).With a bit more tightening up, this could have been a very good book. Although it's slightly flawed, it still makes for interesting reading, although casually interested readers might find Collins' book more useful, and for the truly curious, Anthony James West's several volumes on the First Folio or the new descriptive catalogue are probably the way to go, offering as they do a much deeper treatment of the subject.
  • (5/5)
    I enjoyed the stories about collectors and thieves. I found it to be a quick and enjoyable read.
  • (3/5)
    I'm on a 'Books About Shakespeare' kick this year, so The Shakespeare Thefts fit right in with my train of thought. I'd just finished Bill Bryson's book, which had a chapter about the First Folio, and I never realized just how valuable it is and how many hands it has passed (including some with sticky fingers.) I shared the author's frustration with the inability to see certain copies because of the reticence or eccentricities of its current owners. Art or rare book theft stories are always intriguing, though in this case some of the stories or references are spaced out erratically (at least in my perception.) Still, a good quick read and a decent reference to have in a Shakespeare fan's collection.
  • (3/5)
    This is an Early Reviewers copy. Thank you.The Shakespeare Thefts In Search of the First Folio by Eric Rasmussen is a short, frothy book about the strange and quirky histories of some of the First Folios. Rasmussen is the co-editor of the seminal work Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue. While doing the research for the catalogue he came across some wonderful stories about the provenance of various volumes. This little book is the resultIt reminds me of someone who has an interesting job and delights in telling stories about his subject. Anecdotes range from stolen copies that turn up half a world away to the collector who replaced the torn corners of his edition with the corners from genuine Folio pages of incomplete editions, Then there was the forger who "copied" damaged pages and frontispieces and the institutions forced to sell their copies because they could not afford to insure them.This is a stocking-stuffer book for lovers of old books and Shakespeare buffs. Nothing profound here, just a bit of fun.
  • (4/5)
    This is an easy read and an amusing little book. If your neighbors had an early edition of the Bible, of Shakespeare plays or the book "Revolutions" by Copernicus, I am sure you would love to have a look at it and learn how it came into their hands. Professor Rasmussen (not the baseball player) gives you that pleasure and he has plenty of stories to share. The stories include old and recent thefts and fakes: the value of such old books can reach millions of dollars, so there is a dark side. There is a great advantage in having scholars get around the world to describe each first edition they can find: it becomes more difficult for the thief to sell on the open market. A similar book has been written by Owen Gingerich ("The book nobody read") about Copernicus. The author started to try to find out who effectively read the book and ended up as a specialist of each manuscript to the point he could confound a thief. Prof. Rasmusssen talks all the time about his "team"; I am sorry he does not leave us with a list of members of the team in appendix. It would please his colleagues and students, and old people like me could check if they ever found a job after this. Some readers have complained about Rasmussen obsession with copies he has not seen yet. It is part of the fun of reading books like this: all bibliophiles have a manic side. It makes the book human. Is it a shallow book? Yes. It is what I liked about it.
  • (4/5)
    Shakespeare scholar Eric Rasmussen has dedicated years of his life to cataloguing all the extant copies of the First Folio - the rare, extremely valuable 1623 print of Shakespeare's complete works. The complete information on these copies, with all its bibliographic detail, is in a thick reference book called The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue - this book is more in the nature of a travelogue, with colourful stories about the history of these rare books. We read about an elaborate plot to steal a Folio from a college library in Massachusetts, a copy of the Folio censored by the Spanish Inquisition, and another copy annotated by Charles I as he awaited execution. All of this makes for interesting reading, although it will probably appeal mostly to bibliophiles.The writing style is breezy and colloquial, if occasionally inelegant; at 180 pages of fairly large print, the book goes by quickly. Occasionally one has the impression that the book was somewhat hastily assembled; Rasmussen gives us the same information about the nineteenth-century copyist John Harris in two different chapters fairly close together, resulting in a strange sense of déja vu. Perhaps one of these chapters had been previously published elsewhere, and was never altered to fit into its new context. Such problems are minor, and don't detract from the otherwise pleasant reading experience.
  • (4/5)
    A fun, quick read that surveys the history of Shakespeare's First Folio, the first complete edition of his plays and an exceedingly valuable artifact. Lots of interesting anecdotes about collectors and thieves who have possessed the volumes over the years (though some links, like Hitler, are a stretch). It's a good introduction to a narrow slice of the world of bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs; for more expansive treatment of that subject, check out Nicholas Basbanes A Gentle Madness. For much more expansive treatment of the scholarly and theatrical debates over which versions of Shakespeare's plays are "authoritative," check out Ron Rosenbaum's The Shakespeare Wars.
  • (4/5)
    Eric Rasmussen and his colleagues traveled the globe cataloging Shakespeare first folios for a new definitive bibliography. He collected stories about each of these folios and has published them in "The Shakespeare Thefts: Stealing the World's Most Famous Book." Rasmussen relates stories about the folios such as who first published the works, how they were printed, who bought them, who stole them, and who now owns them. The best stories are the craziest ones. Some people stole this book because they were bibliomaniacs and just couldn't resist. Others stole it to sell, but were so inept that they were easily caught. Rasmussen's team cataloged each book down to the minutest detail including blood splatters and bullet holes. The book is broken into chapters that tell a story about each folio. Within these chapters the author mentions other anecdotes about famous book collectors or other books that have been stolen. This was a quick enjoyable read. If you are in the antiquarian book business like I am or are an avid book collector you will enjoy these tales.