Of Shakespeare & Gutenberg

Images courtesy of the publishers

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, published in the U.S. last spring

Few names bestir the hearts of book collectors and die-hard bibliophiles as much as Shakespeare and Gutenberg. Two new non-fiction books adroitly capitalize on that fact, adding the element of suspense to their narratives. Both are riveting reads, but let's peel back the covers just a bit.

On the heels of his book, The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders, published in the U.S. last spring, Stuart Kells now offers Shakespeare's Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature (Counterpoint, $26). In short, the "mystery" is where did Shakespeare's book collection go? Did he own books, and if so, why have we never discovered them? These are questions that sting in the realm of rare books because it's hard to imagine a literary lion without at least one bookcase of coveted titles, and yet none have ever been found containing any evidence of ownership that connects them to the famous poet and playwright -- at least not with any degree of certainty; let's not forget that two antiquarian booksellers announced in 2014 their discovery of a sixteenth-century dictionary that they believe Shakespeare annotated, which Kells touches upon but too slightly.

Locating Shakespeare's missing library is both a personal quest for Kells and his wife, Fiona, and an academic one, and Kells is our congenial tour guide throughout, visiting the various book hunters who have tried and failed to get ahold of the Bard's books. One of the interesting, if unconvincing, theories put forth is that Shakespeare was not such a genius after all. "Versifier, vitalizer, even vulgarizer, he took prior content and made it sing...He acquired, adapted, appropriated, converted, revised, synthesized, improved, borrowed, copied, co-opted, re-used, re-worked, re-packaged, stole." So the Bard was a re-blogger who used up material and spit it out, hardly holding on to the sources long enough to build a personal library.

While The Library sometimes felt wayward in places, Shakespeare's Library ably carries its narrative start to finish. It is sharp and enjoyable.  

Images courtesy of the publishers

In The Lost Gutenberg: The Astounding Story of One Book's Five-Hundred-Year Odyssey (TarcherPerigree, $27) author Margaret Leslie Davis has struck upon a fantastic idea: tracing one copy of the Gutenberg Bible through its various owners, with some wonderfully bizarre tales involving Worcestershire sauce and plutonium isolation thrown in for good measure. 

The Gutenberg Bible really is the Holy Grail of rare books -- less than fifty are known to exist, in various states of completeness, and none are available to buy. The one Davis follows is No. 45, a beautiful copy in a contemporary binding. (So beautiful, in fact, that some color photography, if only of the bible's first page with its green and gold illuminated initial, would have been nice. At least Davis points us to the virtual copy.) After some necessary preliminaries, her tale begins with the book's first known owner, Archibald Acheson, 3rd Earl of Gosford, who keeps the book in his Irish castle, and ends in a Japanese vault. Along the way, we meet a couple of English book collectors, but the longest stopover is with one American collector, Estelle Doheny, the "Mighty Woman Book Hunter." Hers is a tale of triumph and betrayal; as a profile of Doheny alone, Davis' book is worth the price of admission.

The Gutenberg Bible is neither the world's oldest book, nor the first use of moveable type, as is sometimes said in shorthand, and Davis, who is not a rare book world "insider," is well aware of that. Her reporting is spot-on, and her style is lively and engaging. A quibbler might question the use of the present tense throughout, but overall, an admirable achievement. (Read a sample here.)