Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review - The Shakespeare Thefts

I received The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios by Eric Rasmussen from LibraryThing as part of their Early Reviewer program. When I saw this one in the list of books for that month, I knew I had to request it and hoped that having a large collection of Shakespeare indexed in my account on the site would help me snag it. Fortunately it must have because I ended up with a copy. ;)

First I'll copy a description from the LibraryThing page to give a summary of what the book is about:
The first edition of Shakespeare's collected works, the First Folio, published in 1623, is not only one of the most valuable book, it is also a favorite target of 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 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. Part literary detective story, part Shakespearean lore, The Shakespeare Thefts will charm the Bard's many fans.

That is why I had to request this book. I studied English in college and absolutely loved renaissance literature, particularly Shakespeare, so a description like that caught my eye and 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 really 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.

I did find it amusing that the book I read right before this one was The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. I didn't plan it that way but apparently late 2011 was my time for books about book thefts! It was neat going from a very fictional book about books being stolen for nefarious purposes to a non-fictional book about books being stolen mysteriously throughout the past few centuries. Goes to show that reality can be just as strange as fiction!


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Somerset wedding gal said...

What do you think about the idea that it doesn't ultimately matter who authored the plays and poems? Some people I know would say that, while others would say that the actual name is the most important part of his identity.

Meri Greenleaf said...

That's a really good question- I never really thought about it. I don't think that would bother me, though, if it turned out someone else wrote them; the poems and plays are brilliant regardless of who the author was.

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