Tag: Stuart Kells

Shakespeare’s Library

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart Kellsby Stuart Kells

ISBN 9781640091832

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

“In all this time, the search came to nought. Not a trace of his library was found. No books, no manuscripts, no letters, no diaries. The desire to get close to Shakespeare was unrequited, the vacuum palpable.”

For a playwright so prolific and widely beloved—at least today—William Shakespeare left surprisingly little behind on his death in 1616 at Stratford-upon-Avon. His will makes no mention of papers or books, though he famously left his wife his second-best bed. In literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace, and much has been made of that vacuum. This title was originally released in Australia by Text Publishing in 2018, and is being published by Counterpoint in the United States.

Shakespeare’s Library is divided into three parts, including The First Searchers, The Heretical Searchers, and Visions of Shakespeare’s Library. Kells begins with the earliest efforts to locate the Bard’s papers. It is a complex history, fraught with false leads, and red herrings. Bemused Stratford-upon-Avon locals have been known to play tricks on the treasure seekers, such as pretending that they recently burned a stack of old papers that might have belonged to their most famous son. Other searchers turned out to be frauds and con men, happily supplying the lack of Shakespeare memorabilia with documents of their own creation. This hair raising history will be enough to make you question any such future discoveries that have not been carefully vetted.

While Shakespeare is regarded as high literature today, this is far from having always been the case. Drama was considered a low art, while poetry was the pinnacle of literature. If you sift through the Elizabethan English, the Bard’s plays are filled with ribald jokes and innuendos. Indeed, the very term “bowdlerize” arises from the work of the Bowdler siblings, who created The Family Shakespeare in the 19th Century, expunging blasphemy and immorality from the plays, expurgating some ten percent of the original text to create a “cleaner” version suitable for family consumption. Indeed, Shakespeare was something of a vulgarizer of existing stories, punching them up for the stage. His shows played to popular acclaim, but little critical regard. While some book collectors did include play manuscripts in their libraries, they often did not bother to individually list them when cataloguing their collections.

The lack of survival of original play texts is even less surprising when you consider that the fad for first editions post-dates Shakespeare. Indeed, “in the seventeenth century, collectors replaced old editions with new ones, and regarded this as an improvement.” Still other collectors, more concerned with clean copies than original ones, thought nothing of a taking apart several editions, sometimes of different printings, and then rebinding them together into “mongrel editions,” thus completely destroying the “bibliographical integrity” of the books. Beyond just a history of the search for Shakespeare’s papers, Shakespeare’s Library also embeds a fascinating history of book collecting as passion and pastime.

Of course, one cannot go looking for the Bard’s papers without engaging with the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Nature abhors a vacuum, and a rush of frauds and conspiracy theories have arisen to fill it. If Shakespeare was merely a frontman for an anonymous aristocrat who was the real author of the plays, then of course it would not be surprising if he left no papers behind. Kells is an orthodox Stratfordian, but he attended university at Monash in Australia, which he discovered to be a surprising hotbed of anti-Stratfordians and Shakespeare heretics, an experience which Kells describes as being a bit like “discovering all your friends are Scientologists or swingers.” Kells is conversant with all of the various theories, as well as their problems and implications.

The argument that grows up from Shakespeare’s Library is much simpler; Shakespeare was a voracious borrower, an inveterate repurposer, perhaps even a shameless thief of existing texts. While ideas of authorship and copyright were much looser in Elizabethan times than our current understanding, Shakespeare was so egregious than even his contemporaries occasionally complained about his behaviour. Yet copious borrowing combined with diverse editors might make for exactly the sort of breadth and variety of knowledge that lead the conspiracy theorists to conclude that Shakespeare must have been an extremely well-educated and well-travelled aristocrat rather than a mere commoner who may have lacked so much a grammar school education.

Stuart Kells confidently takes the reader through this fascinating history, tracing the high highs and low lows of a centuries old quest. If the idea of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts makes you salivate a little, if the Shakespeare Authorship question horrifies and fascinates you in equal measure, then this is the book for you.

You might also like How to Be a Tudor by Ruth Goodman

ALA Midwinter Non-Fiction Preview

At the end of January, I had the chance to attend two days of the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle. I had a great time attending panels, meeting up with book blog and librarian friends, and browsing the exhibits.  As usual, publishers were spotlighting some of their upcoming titles. Here are a few of the non-fiction titles that I am excited about!

Midnight by Victoria Shorr

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria ShorrA biography in three parts, Midnight examines three famous women at moments of crisis and reflection. Jane Austen’s moment comes at the death of her father, and a proposal of marriage, a critical choice between securing home and hearth, and a writing career. Mary Shelley finds herself on the shores of an Italian lake, five days after the disappearance of her husband in a storm. Going still further back, Joan of Arc reckons with meeting her fate at the stake for the second time. Midnight captures three notable women at their darkest hour, including two of my favourite authors, and a religious figure who fascinated me in my younger years. Coming March 12, 2019 from W. W. Norton Company.

Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

Cover image for Biased by Jennifer L. EberhardtSocial psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt studies unconscious racial bias, and its implications at the the institutional level, particularly for the criminal justice system, such as policing and prisons.  It seems especially important for those who consciously believe in equality to consider how social training and subconscious impulses may be affecting our behaviours and perceptions in ways we are not fully aware of, and the cascading effects of those behaviours on the lives of those around us. Other early reviewers have touted Eberhardt’s clear explanations, and her ability to combine academic research examples with personal stories to illustrate her point, an ideal combination for an academic publishing a general interest book. Biased is due out March 26, 2019 from Viking.

Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart KellsIn literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down William Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace.  I’m a sucker for books about books, so I expect this one will really hit the spot. Originally released last year in Australia by Text Publishing, the US publication comes April 2, 2019 from Counterpoint.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellInvestigative journalist Sonia Purnell digs into the secret life of Virginia Hall, one of World War II’s most accomplished spies and Resistance organizers. An American woman who lost her career in the diplomatic service to a hunting accident that led to the amputation of her leg, Hall found a second chance working as a spy for the British after the fall of France. She continued her work even after her cover was blown, and she became one of Germany’s most wanted, a bounty on her head, and posters of her face calling out for her arrest. I continue to be endlessly fascinated by this period of history, and I particularly like fresh perspectives that challenge our assumptions and expectations about the roles people played. Look for A Woman of No Importance April 9, 2019 from Viking.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” So when I saw her forthcoming memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. After struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for many years, The Valedictorian of Being Dead follows Armstrong’s decision to participate in a clinical trial for an experimental treatment that would chemically induce a coma and brain death, before bringing her back. Coming April 23, 2019 from Gallery Books.

Did you have a chance to attend ALA? What forthcoming non-fiction titles are you excited about? Let me know in the comments!