Friday, May 27, 2016

The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

22609466

Rating: 4 Stars

I first have to note that I picked this book up at the museum here while the First Folio was on display as part of it's tour for Shakespeare400. It is the most beautiful book I have ever seen in my entire life. Unfortunately we were, of course, not allowed to take pictures, but you can bet I was standing over that glass case every chance I had that someone else was not waiting to view it. It was open to Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy and I must have read the words a hundred times in the two visits I made to the exhibit. If it has not yet come to your state and will be soon, you must see it. It is completely worth whatever museum admission fee you might pay. It is absolutely breathtaking.

More than anything, this book makes me want to see the Folger Library and bask in the glorious beautiful of so many Folios in one place. Unfortunately they are not accessible to the public and that is terribly disappointing. I do not think I qualify as a special enough scholar with the exact credentials needed to gain access. What a pity.

I understand being obsessed with things, being so obsessive that I have to collect everything possibly related to whatever the subject is. Unfortunately, I will never have the funds to fuel any kind of obsession the way Folger did. He was able to spend obscene amounts of money to secure more First Folios than any other collector in the world, on top of playbills, paintings, and all sorts of Shakespeare-related items. Not only that, but he then proceeded to construct a temple to house his treasures that still stands to this day, one of the foremost authorities on the greatest writer to ever live.

The book begins with a jaunt through the life of Shakespeare, which of course makes sense. Without him, Folger might instead have been collecting the works of Jonson or Marlowe. The bulk of the text though relates to that first purchase that Folger made, then his subsequent quest to collect every Folio he could find - regardless of condition. Like Folger, I am of the mindset that condition does not matter. To have as many copies as possible would be the ultimate goal. Not to mention all the lose pages - it's even mentioned at one point that it may be possible to create another two or three Folios just from said loose pages. This is completely fascinating to me, to see all of those documents and books together in one place.

While I enjoyed the book over all, the actual portions dealing with the acquisitions of the each major Folio were a bit dry and took me the longest to get through. I'm not quite sure why, it is not a poorly written book and the there is no sudden change in style. Perhaps it is again that aspect of money, and knowing that there is no way I will ever be able to indulge myself in anything of interest quite the way Folger was able to in his lifetime? Who knows. But, either way, this section did take me the longest to get through and it has never taken me so long to read a book related to Shakespeare before.

The text really picked up for me again once Folger began planning his grand library and I was anxious to see how it would turn out. The fear he would pass away before it was complete unfortunately came true as I worried it might. But, his wife Emily was there to carry on the dream and I was at least glad to see that the library was completed in her lifetime. I do not find it strange, as the author kind of thought people might, that Henry and Emily Folger are interred in the library that bears their name. it makes complete sense to me that this would be their final resting place, surrounded in death by the collection that was so important to them in life.

One issue I take with the book is the idea that Folger was 'rescuing' the Folios. First and foremost, Shakespeare belongs to England. To think that he and his words would be better taken care of here in the US than in his native England seems kind of pompous. I do not think that was Folger's intention, to be that pompous. Or maybe it was, but as the text states, "His was a selective and singular madness" (page 276) and I think his intent was solely to collect s many as he could. I can understand why the English took issue with the great robber barons of the day rummaging through the cabinets so to speak, and carrying off anything of value that they could find.

Two more quotes I found interesting:

"At the library that bears his name, there is little remembrance or recognition of Folger's other life, the one that paid for it all" (page 273)

and

"In a library filled with signs and symbols that evoke the age of Shakespeare, there is none that evokes the industrial age of Henry Folger" (page 273).

It is unfortunate that in Folger's triumph in giving the world this library, he himself is largely forgotten. We tend to look back now on the industrial age somewhat negatively, to look at the likes of Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan as these robber baron-esque types who were only concerned with making money for themselves. While Folger certainly was part of that age (he worked at Standard Oil for Rockefeller), he was also a philanthropist and his library is the proof. He could have kept his collection private and never shared it with the world. He chose not to. And so, his and Emily's legacy will live on. Highly recommended.

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