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Words, words, words The Millionaire and the Bard'

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Book tells the story of history's preeminent collector of Shakespeare

'What's past is prologue.' - Act II, scene i; The Tempest

Few antiquarian books are as coveted as the First Folio of William Shakespeare, the 1623 publication that essentially saved the works of our most cherished playwright from becoming literary footnotes lost to the ravages of history. One could argue that it is the most valuable book in the world.

In her book 'The Millionaire and the Bard,' author Andrea Mays tells the tale of a wealthy American industrialist whose love for all things Shakespeare became an obsession, leading to the quietly steady amassing of the world's preeminent collection of Shakespeariana in the earliest years of the 20th century.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, many of his works died with him. In his day, few truly understood the depth and breadth of his genius. When he died, the popularity of his works was waning, and a full 18 of them had never been published. It was not until seven years later that some of Shakespeare's friends compiled copies of his plays and manuscripts 36 in all in an effort to memorialize their fallen comrade.

From there, it went on to be merely one of the most important English language books ever published.

Collectors yearned for their own copies of the First Folio, but few had a devotion that burned as brightly as that of Henry Folger. From his college days, Folger bore a deep and abiding love for the works of Shakespeare. That love manifested in a desire to possess pieces of the Bard himself; he collected all sorts of books and playbills and what have you, but copies of the First Folio were his most yearned-for prizes.

As he became one of the most prominent leaders of the massive Standard Oil Corporation, a trusted lieutenant of none other than John D. Rockefeller, Folger's means began to catch up with his desired ends. Quietly, and with much attention given to secrecy, Henry Folger began purchasing copy after copy of Shakespeare's First Folio. Condition rarely mattered as much as provenance (though when he found examples of excellence in both senses, no price was too high) he just wanted as many First Folios as he could get.

'The Millionaire and the Bard' really tells two stories. There's the story of how the First Folio came to be and the genius whose work populated its pages. And there's the story of one man obsessed with a need to amass that genius. From Jacobean England to early 20th century New York City, the story ranges across the centuries with dueling narratives of art and commerce and the overlap between them.

Folger whose name adorns the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. was a captain of industry who also bore a deep admiration for the arts. Mays captures that dichotomy beautifully, painting a vivid portrait of a man whose quiet desires resulted in the world's greatest collection of material regarding history's greatest playwright. What sometimes surprises is the fact that the differences between businessman and collector are often too small to see. Folger's quest is a compelling one, to be sure, and Mays gives it life.

The book engages and informs in equal measure; it's a worthwhile character study of a man whose bibliophilia utterly and irrevocably altered the literary landscape. As Polonius says in 'Hamlet' 'This above all: to thine own self be true.' Henry Folger undeniably lived his life by those words.

'The Millionaire and the Bard' is a must for Shakespeare fans, but anyone who loves books and the power they can hold over us will be swept up in this well-researched, well-wrought work.


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