It is hardly debatable that the two most important publications in terms of modern English language are the King James Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare. In 1623, two actors who had worked with Shakespeare sought to publish a collection of his work in order that the acting company could profit rather than the many knock offs that were circulating at the time. Only about 1,000 copies were printed, of those 232 remain accounted for. How do we know this? Because of the work of Eric Rasmussen and his crack team of Folio Hunters. Rasmussen formed his team in 1996 with the expressed aim of documenting as many surviving copies as possible and determining their provenance in the process. The Shakespeare Thefts can be looked at as a highlight reel of what they have been able to accomplish.
What they have done is to uncover “a fascinating world … populated with thieves, masterminds, fools, and eccentrics, all of whom have risked fortunes and reputations to possess a coveted First Folio.” What makes this book an enjoyable read is hearing these tales and the lengths they have gone to attain what is arguably the most famous book in the collecting world, such as, a nineteenth-century bricklayer who stole a Count’s personal copy and sold it for wrapping paper to shopkeepers, an accidental theft by a 20th century Pope, a shoe salesman disguised as a professor who stole one right out of a college reading room; and then there is my personal favorite involving a playboy living off stolen credit cards, Cubans, and the Folger Library. (I won’t spoil it. You have to read it to believe it.)
If this book has a flaw it is that there is little flow to the narrative. It reads as a series of stand alone essays with little if anything moving in a linear direction. There are many tales of books they feel are out there but that they have failed to find. As a reader I kept waiting for the author to get back to those stories and tell me they found this one or that one, but this never happens.
Overall though I can strongly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Shakespeare, or simply appreciates books for their own sake. It is a very quick read and by the end you will know more about how books are made, faked, stolen and retrieved than you did before. What more can you ask of a book.
If you paid any attention at all to the news a couple years back you will surely recognize the protagonists for half of this book. Three Mexican fishermen survived in a small open boat without any supplies, while drifting for more than nine months across 5,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean. Their perseverance, strength and ultimately their faith is what allowed them to survive.
At the same time Joe Kissack was a thousand miles away, both literally and figuratively. Externally he had all the trappings of success, but he too was adrift in a sea of hopelessness, addiction as well as a victim of his past. Kissack tells his tale and how the story of the fisherman and his eventual meeting with them allowed for a different kind of rescue.
Kissack is a likable enough person so that the reader finds himself relating to and rooting for him, but it is in the riveting story telling surrounding the Mexican fishermen that this book really comes into its own. While this is very much a faith-based book, you do not need to be a person of faith to enjoy Kissack’s story-telling. Anyone who appreciates survival stories and all their frightening and sometimes gory details will appreciate it.