Book history is full of dead ends, lost threads, and rabbit holes that lead to nowhere. You can work for a decade, as I did, on a single book—observing, describing, analyzing, hypothesizing, gathering corroborating evidence, following up on provenance leads, etc.—and still be left with gaping holes in the narrative of why the book ended up where it ended up and how it ended up in its present state.
For me, that book is an annotated copy of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), known colloquially as the First Folio, now housed at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department. More than 250 copies of this book survive and many of them show some evidence of early readership. So what makes this one different? Access, for one. In 1899, the book attracted the attention of Sidney Lee, who would be the first person to attempt a comprehensive census of extant copies of Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. It has also been described in Anthony J. West’s Census (2001) and Eric Rasmussen and West’s more recent Descriptive Catalogue (2012). But it has never attracted scholarly attention, most likely because it would be very difficult to find unless you knew to look for it. It is not catalogued online, nor has it been digitized. Furthermore, it is housed in a public library that, despite its impressive special collections, is not frequented by many scholars working on early modern drama. Indeed, I heard about this copy by word-of-mouth from Peter Stallybrass when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia. He thought the annotations were interesting, and he encouraged me to see what I could find out.Read More