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July 22, 2009|Nicholas A. Basbanes | Basbanes is the author of seven books, including "Every Book Its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World."

Of the many ironies surrounding William Shakespeare's plays, none is more compelling than the fact that the man esteemed today as England's national poet never in his lifetime authorized publication of any of his dramatic works. That remarkable task -- and it remains one of the outstanding acts of cultural beneficence in literary history -- was left to John Heminge and Henry Condell, fellow actors of the Bard who were devoted to his memory, and to preserving his great corpus for generations yet unborn.

Published in 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare's death), what we today call the First Folio -- the actual title is "Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies" -- is one of the most coveted books in the history of print, ranked right up there with the Gutenberg Bible of circa 1450 and John James Audubon's "The Birds of America" of 1827-39. Another First Folio irony is that, despite the extraordinary prices it commands on those rare occasions when one appears on the market -- the last two sold at auction were hammered down for $6.16 million in 2001 and $5.2 million in 2006 -- it is not a particularly scarce book: There are 228 copies, out of a thousand believed to have been printed, known to have survived, and the vast majority of them are held today in institutional collections.

Indeed, it is the widely publicized sale of the folio in London three years ago that Paul Collins uses to set the stage for "The Book of William: How Shakespeare's First Folio Conquered the World," an entertaining consideration arranged in five acts of the serendipitous social life the book has experienced over the four centuries of its existence.

"It is priceless," Collins observes on the eve of the sale at Sotheby's, "except that tomorrow someone will indeed name a price."

Collins, an assistant professor of English at Portland State University in Oregon, is the author of several works of nonfiction, most notably "Sixpence House," a 2003 memoir of the brief period when he lived in Hay-on-Wye in Wales, home to dozens of secondhand bookstores and nirvana for bibliophiles.

Here, in "The Book of William," his focus is on a single volume -- the book that collected 36 of Shakespeare's plays, half of them preserved in no other form -- and on the people who compiled, printed, edited, read, sold and owned it, including oilman Henry Clay Folger (founder in 1930 of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.), who hoarded it to the tune of 79 copies.

A nice touch are the little vignettes Collins offers of key principals -- the printer William Jaggard; editors Alexander Pope, Lewis Theobald and Samuel Johnson; textual scholar Charlton Hinman; and bibliographer Anthony James West, among others. So are the mini-travelogues he includes of the places he visits in the United States, England and Japan, where 12 folios reside in a single vault at Meisei University.

Writing in a style that is light and casual, Collins makes productive use of a vast body of Shakespeare scholarship that he references in an engaging essay at the end of the book, called "Further Readings." My quibbles are that he does not give precise citations for his sources and that there is no index. (A few illustrations wouldn't have been a bad idea, either.) But he has written a fun book, a bookend, of sorts, to "The Book Nobody Read," Owen Gingerich's globe-trotting 2004 census of Nicolaus Copernicus' "De revolutionibus" and an exemplar of the genre.

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