Thursday, May 05, 2016

Bard Is the Word

When I first heard of the book The Millionaire and the Bard, it seemed like it might be tailor-made for me. The book's full title fills you in more as to its tale: The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio. It's the true story of early 20th-century oil executive Henry Folger, and his efforts to buy up every surviving copy he could find of Shakespeare's First Folio -- the original 1623 printing of the playwright's full collection of plays. This tale sounded like it lived at the intersection of Shakespeare, collecting, and treasure hunt. Brilliant!

Author Andrea Mays starts her book in a compelling way, detailing the actual creation of the First Folio. She explains how it was only through the Herculean efforts of two of Shakespeare's actors that the Folio even exists -- and how without them, fully half of Shakespeare's plays would have been lost forever, leaving the compromised remainder littered with textual errors. It's a sobering reminder of how much of history is lost to history, and revealed much to me I didn't know before.

But when the book then turns to the life of Henry Folger and his collector's compulsion... well, my expectations for the book really didn't line up with reality. I think perhaps I was expecting some kind of Indiana Jones type of tale. I don't mean that I was foolishly expecting some action-adventure with narrow escapes and menacing villains. But I did expect to see some effort, some historical sleuthing, in the hunt for First Folios. Where had these surviving copies been hiding? How did Folger track them down? Did their owners know what they had? How did Folger persuade them to part with such treasures?

The book is almost never about any of that. Thanks to her exceptional research, Andrea Mays can tell you about every First Folio ever acquired by Folger -- when he bought it, what he paid for it, how it was catalogued. But there's rarely an interesting story behind the mere acquisition of the thing. Folger did none of his own hunting; he learned of each Folio from an auction house, or from a contemporary catalogue of Folios published by a British researcher. The "Obsessive" part of the book's subtitle is clearly present, but there's no real sense of a "Hunt."

On one or two occasions, the story of acquiring one particular copy of a First Folio merits a longer telling: when a copy once owned by a library comes up for sale, when a bitter British noble waffles on whether to sell his copy, when an attempt to leverage a purchase like a business deal blows up in Folger's face. But generally, the saga of Folger's collecting is a monotonous litany: this year he bought this many copies, next year he bought this many more, on and on and on. The "how" of it equally boring: he was a rich man with a ludicrous income, who denied himself the trappings of that wealth to collect Shakespeare. It's not a story that sustains itself well over many chapters.

So in the end, I really can't recommend this book. True fans of Shakespeare will appreciate the story of the First Folio's creation. And a couple of compelling essays might have been written about two or three particular acquisitions from Folger's lifetime. But there's a lot of repetitive fluff lurking in the pages of The Millionaire and the Bard. I give it a C.

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