Top positive review
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never less than enthralling
on 17 October 2011
If you're one of those people and looking to steal a very rare book, whatever you do, never, and this should be underlined and repeated, never, steal a Shakespeare First Folio. Not because stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is necessarily that hard; if the heists detailed in Eric Rasmussen's The Shakespeare Thefts are an example, it's actually a relatively straightforward process to steal a Shakespeare First Folio. Not quite sticking a Harry Potter under your jumper in WH Smiths, but security in some places has been strangely loose and based on much trust between a reference library and the person purporting to be an academic.
No, the problem with stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is that you'll never be able to sell it on. Well, you might, on the black market, assuming you have the right contacts, but only for a fraction of what it's actually worth. The problem is, at least for a prospective thief is that not only do Rasmussen and a team of researchers have a record of the location for all the couple of hundred or so Shakespeare First Folios in existence, they've also tirelessly created a descriptive record of them all so that if a Folio is stolen and then another Folio appears on the market, they can tell relatively quickly if they're one and the same.
Soon this data will been published. It's in The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Index and although - based on the section quoted in this supplementary book - it's fairly dry read it also provides added security to those owners who've agreed to have their Folio recorded. You may have seen the documentary on television last year, the story of how Raymond Rickett Scott carried a Folio into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington claiming to have bought it in Cuba, and although it was missing its covers and first pages, they were very quickly able to identify it as the copy stolen from Durham University ten years before.
The Shakespeare Thefts is a cautionary tale and there are numerous other examples of less educated thieves who've fallen into the same trap of assuming that stealing a Shakespeare First Folio is just like any other rare book. But Rasmussen seeks to underscore the point by revealing that it's not simply the description of each book which identifies it, but it's provenance. They've been able to identify who originally purchased each of these Folios and the book's journey through time, some simply sitting on a shelf in the intervening years, some having escaped war zones, some even having apparently saved lives, taking a bullet themselves.
All of which is very exciting, but the book itself is something of a curate's egg, not quite sure what it wants to be. On the one hand it is about the thefts of the folios and on the other it is about their history. Then there's a third hand about the actual processes of recording the folios and some anecdotes about that and the inevitable forth about those Folios out of reach, locked away in private vaults with orders for them not to be seen the frustration of which Rasmussen returns to on a number of occasions. He returns to a few subjects on a number of occasions even repeating the same information. This is a messy book.
Perhaps a more schematic approach would have helped. The Descriptive Index promises to have full provenance details and perhaps a better approach here would have been to simply pick the more interesting Folios and offered the story of those with an anecdote about its recording as this attempts to do in a few chapters. But that would also have a required a slightly more academic tone and the other slightly problem is Rasmussen (who amongst other things co-edited the RSC Complete Works with Jonathan Bate) is attempting to write for that market and the popular history section which in some cases makes it very readable but in others slightly insubstantial. I managed to finish the book in about two hours.
As it stands, what is here is never less than enthralling and the slightly random approach does give it the tone of an extended after dinner speech or spending an entertaining evening in the office of an academic after hours as they regale you with war stories or fishing tales, the Folio destroyed in fires or nibbled by rats. There's an excellent short chapter about the preparation of the text for the recent RSC Hamlet with David Tennant, the production we didn't see, and the appendix is as clear a description of the process of the original publication of the folios as I've ever read. Approach it in the right spirit and this is a thoroughly entertaining read.