Thou shalt not covet…

November 20, 2015

41wmVdzREbL._AA160_I thought about calling this post ‘book p*rn’ but decided against it, lest anyone get the wrong idea, but perhaps you may see my thinking after you’ve read further…

A number of years ago, feeling flush, I treated myself to a facsimile of the First Folio of Shakespeare. I don’t have a use for it, I just wanted it. I’ve seen a real one several times, and it looks gorgeous: serious paper, made to last, just like the binding, beautiful print, nearly 400 years old. And a reproduction was the nearest I could get. Every now and then I take it down from the shelf, ease it from the slipcase, and browse the pages, read some of my favourite speeches in that marvellous seventeenth century font. It’s a beautifully produced twentieth century book (from an American publisher, of course) on lovely, quality paper, sewn and cloth-bound.

It’s a curious book, in a lot of ways. For one, the First Folio doesn’t contain all of the plays – for some reason, Pericles isn’t included. As a production, it’s rather shoddy: there are lots of mistakes in the pagination, for example, and a whole raft of other inconsistencies. Because it was a huge undertaking for the time, it had to be typeset and printed in sections, and the type re-used; time and money pressures meant that there were several compositors, not all of the same standard; for some pages, text had to be crammed in towards the bottom of a page so that particular section would fit, so it’s not set out ‘properly’ (as we know it)… But if it hadn’t been produced, chances are we would have far fewer of the Bard’s plays.

The facsimile itself is a labour of love from half a century ago. The main use of such a work is for critics and other textual analysts to try and work out what Shakespeare actually meant in various places where his meaning isn’t evident, or clear: by comparing all printed editions (quartos and folios) over time, it is hoped to unravel some of the mysteries… There is a library in the US, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which has gradually acquired the largest collection of copies of the original First Folio – it’s still not really known how many were printed in 1623, but it seems to have been less than a thousand – and there are many subtle differences between existing copies, depending on whether the pages had been corrected or not, and at what stage in the printing they were actually produced. So pretty nearly every copy can differ from its fellows in tiny ways.

This also means that I have a facsimile of a book that doesn’t actually exist! Because, having many copies to work from, it was possible to go through all those copies, and for every page, make a reproduction of the best (most textually correct, and sharpest/clearest printing) available page from all those copies, before collating them into the 1968 version.

It is truly a work of art. And every time I open it, there is something of a frisson when reading those well-known speeches or exchanges that one has loved and studied in the past, in the script and font from the time of Shakespeare himself; somehow I am taken closer to the man himself and his time…

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