AP/AP – The reading room of the new Folger Shakespeare Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 2, 1931. It will in time house the 75,000-volume collection–the world’s greatest of Shakespeariana–given by the late Henry C. Folger of New York.
Yesterday was April 23, the generally accepted birthday of William Shakespeare, who is again in the news. Just a few days ago, two rare-book dealers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, announced that they had found a copy of John Baret’s “Alvearie” — a 1580 dictionary — actually used and scribbled in by English literature’s greatest writer. If true, and there is obviously considerable skepticism at this point, this is just the sort of treasure that Henry and Emily Folger would have moved earth and heaven to acquire. For, unlikely as it seems, Washington is home to the most important repository of Shakespeare material in the world. The Folger Shakespeare Library, located on Capitol Hill, possesses more than 275,000 books related to the playwright and his time. It also owns Bard-related memorabilia, playbills, costumes, furniture and paintings. Most notably, its treasures include 82 First Folios, the first edition of the “complete works” of Shakespeare, compiled in 1623 by two actor friends from his old theater troupe, the King’s Men.

In “Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger,” Stephen H. Grant provides not just a biography of the “onlie begetters” of this astonishing library, but also an account of the worlds in which the Folgers lived. The result is a superlative book, one that ranges from Amherst College in the 19th century to the gilded age of Standard Oil to the glory days of high-end book collecting. Crisply written and packed with facts and anecdotes, “Collecting Shakespeare” would be better only if its type size were just a bit larger.