In Praise of the Tangible Sacredness of the Printed Word

An imposing six foot by six foot steel box in mid-century medical gray with two projectors on either end and a pair of binoculars in the middle, the Hinman Collator looks more like something used by neurologists to diagnose brain tumors than a machine for analyzing Renaissance literary texts. The eponymous invention was fashioned by Charlton Hinman, a former Second-World-War-cryptologist-turned-Rhodes-Scholar who enjoyed tremendous success as a bibliographer and scholar of what’s come to be known as “book history.” Employed at various points by both Johns Hopkins and the University of Kansas, Hinman’s celebrated “Collator” deployed a combination of mirrors and lights to give scholars the ability to compare superficially identical pieces of print. The inventor himself noted in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America that his device was “at once awesome and a little ridiculous,” comparing it to a Rube Goldberg machine and admitting that it “presents an especially odd spectacle when in use.” The Collator was designed so that when somebody peered through the binoculars they would be presented with the optical illusion of the two different pages being superimposed upon each other, a trick that would make any variations between those works immediately obvious (as opposed to the laborious work of comparing those texts letter-by-letter). “Trust not my reading nor my observations,” writes Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing, “Which with experimental seal doth warrant/The tenor of my book.” Perhaps, rather, trust the Collator.

If the relic is where matter finds its apotheosis, then it’s hard not to see the folio as a sacred object.

The machine allowed Hinman to compare fifty-five supposedly identical copies of William Shakespeare’s first folio—the 1623 comprehensive printing of thirty-six of the Bard’s plays, with nineteen of them reproduced for the first time, now celebrating its four-hundredth anniversary—and to conclude that there were slight variations across all of these individual books. None of the folios were identical; sometimes a letter or word would be different, evidence of the typesetter at William Jaggard’s London printshop tinkering with errors throughout the process. Or, because every soft tin and lead sort would degrade a bit with each printing due to friction, Hinman was able to ascertain the rough order in which each individual book rolled off the press by charting that degradation to individual printed letters over time. With lenses, light bulbs, mirrors, glass, and metal, Hinman was able to illuminate (literally) the particulars of Shakespearean book production. A 1950 New York Times article notes that “During a six weeks’ period in the summer of 1949, Dr. Hinman worked in the Folger Library and compared 3,000 pages from the First Folio. With his Collator he completed in six weeks a job it would take one man two years of careful reading to accomplish.” Helpful mostly to bibliographers, fifty-nine of the devices were manufactured by Arthur M. Johnson, a former Naval officer based in Silver Spring, Maryland, who sold them to libraries, universities, and according to legend, the CIA, the agency having noted Hinman’s expertise during the war in analyzing aerial bombardment photographs using a similar mechanism.

Nobody in my generation of Renaissance scholars, or the generation who trained me, or even the generation which trained them, has ever worked with a Hinman Collator, and today, a quantitative humanist would undoubtedly use digital technology. Despite having long since become obsolete, both the Hinman Collator and its inventor—the ingenious nuclear age humanist who worked like a scientist—have developed a quasi-mythic reputation. Once while in Scotland, I heard the influential  Shakespearean and materialist literary theorist John Drakakis wax rhapsodic about the Collator in a manner that was almost sensual, and I have to say that I get it. Having never worked with a Hinman Collator, I have had an opportunity to examine one, most recently at Carnegie Mellon University’s exhibit “Inventing Shakespeare: Text, Technology and the Four Folios” where I unsteadily approached the metal creature with both deference and awe.

Hinman’s research led to the 1966 publication of The Norton Facsimile: The First Folio of Shakespeare, whereby the scholar picked through the material dross to produce a Platonist fiction, a “corrected” work that reproduced an ideal version of the first folio which appears like none of the 233 copies of that book which still survive, or presumably of the 750 that constituted that initial 1623 print-run. More interesting than that edition itself was Hinman’s observation that none of the folios themselves were identical, that their uniformity when compared to manuscripts was superficial: each book is its own material individual. What the Hinman Collator represents to me is an understanding of literature which is estimably physical, that locates the grandeur of the written world not in some abstracted, transcendent, ineffable place, but very much in the material realm, in the body.

Literature is a thing produced, revised, disseminated, and preserved through material means; even in the case of spectral electrons zapping down the circuitry in your smartphone, which are as material as the first folio’s paper made of rags and oak gall ink. The Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a point when he claimed that Shakespeare’s writing emerged from the “unfathomable depths of his own oceanic mind,” but it was also produced by his ink-stained hand, by the contortions and positions of his performers, and the judicious decisions of his printers laboring in a hot and loud shop “at the sign of the Half-Eagle and Key in Barbican,” as F.E. Halliday wrote in his biography of Shakespeare.

My own materialism, fervent though it may be, veers into a type of wooly, incarnational mysticism that I imagine would be anathema to my more sober Marxist friends, but for me the book very much is the thing. I’ve had a few opportunities to actually touch the crinkled, brown paper of a first folio, the fine threads of the rendered rags which compose the individual pages visible and slightly textured to the touch, the individual fraying of faded black letters indicative of the sorts wearing down printing after printing. I’ve been able to turn the page of a first folio to the frontispiece of MacBeth at Lehigh University’s special collections, and to slowly paw through Carnegie Mellon University’s first folio and linger over lines like “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” from The Tempest in its earliest printing. At the risk of sounding sentimental, there are many things that go through one’s mind, not least of which is a sense of reverence for the sterling craftsmanship of what was still a mass-produced object; startling to consider when most of our contemporary books will transform into an acidic pulpy mass before the end of the century. Skill is why the book survived, why people wanted to pass it down, why so many still remain, especially when compared to other books from the time period. I’ve worked in the archive with sixteenth-century books where there is only one remaining copy, far fewer than the first folio’s 233 extant copies. Monetarily, these are worth far less than a folio, and the librarians scarcely paid me any attention, even though I could have suddenly lost my mind and began ripping pages and eating them.. That’s because nobody cares about Thomas Crashaw, but Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Maybe initially the binding and pages and cover, the thread and paper and leather, can explain the endurance of the folio, but it’s fair to say that if we think of a folio as a material object, then it’s certainly a relic, too. By definition, all relics are physical, and if the relic is where matter finds its apotheosis, then it’s hard not to see the folio as a sacred object.

Consider a poetics that acknowledges how embodied literature is, where reading and writing are as much of the body as they are of the spirit. Literature is more material than otherworldly, for in the form of the book—whether hand-written or printed, on a computer screen or even just held within the matrix of neurons and their synapses which is the human brain—we experience the Word become flesh, or at least paper. Which is why on this four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s first folio, that tremendously important physical book that was as responsible for the invention of the Bard as the words within it, it’s worth meditating on the physicality of his literature. There were other folios (that name, incidentally, referring to the full size of the paper used, which is simply folded in half, as opposed to quartos which are folded four times, octavos folded eight times, etc.) of Shakespeare, a second edition in 1632, a third in 1663, and a fourth in 1685. Then the innumerable editions of his complete works over the centuries; today there is The Norton Shakespeare with its bible paper and its mottled jester on the cover, The Riverside Shakespeare with its soft, effeminate portrait of the author on the front, The Arden Shakespeare and the Complete Works prepared for the Royal Shakespeare Company, blessed with the imprimatur of Captain Picard and Magneto themselves. There are innumerable editions of cheap paperbacks and deluxe coffee-table books, open-source academic websites and annotated scholarly works. But the folio was the first, and the first is the one that matters. As Jonathan Dollimore noted in the introduction to his landmark Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, “culture does not (cannot) transcend the material forces and relations of production,” and this anniversary of the first folio allows us to consider something wholly more important than a mere man dead for four centuries.

The folio is record of breath and heartbeat rendered into the idiom of rag and ink.

What must be remembered is how much of what made the folio important—why it had such a high print-run and why so many copies survive—is due to economics. Jaggard’s folio was intended to be a keepsake, an expensive keepsake, and its massive nine-hundred pages was unprecedented in theatrical history. Lacking in prestige as a form, at least compared to the elevated modes of epic and lyric poetry, plays had previously only been published in hastily set and cheaply printed quartos, small pocket-sized paperbacks which could make an author or a troupe some money should the theaters be closed due to the plague or Puritans. Slightly under half of Shakespeare’s plays were published during his lifetime in that format, though they are frequently radically different from the “authoritative” versions in the folio (Lear lives, Hamlet says “To be or not to be, aye, there’s the rub”). The 1623 folio indicated that those who mattered believed that the posthumous Shakespeare warranted such a costly volume. Well-set and well-bound with a handsome engraving of the author by the Flemish artist William Droeshout and a host of valedictory poems by poets like Ben Jonson which functioned like blurbs, the investors who funded this initial printing felt that it was worth the financial risk. The upshot of this was two-fold, for the appearance of the folio also helped to manufacture Shakespeare, in the very literal sense of preserving almost half of his plays that had never before appeared in print as quarto or otherwise, as well as announcing the author himself as a mind worth preserving.

For that reason, Shakespeare’s first folio remains a touchstone of bibliography, a book fabled for both its importance and its price. Monetary value seems a gauche criterion to judge a book by, yet it’s inescapable when it comes to the folio. Only a handful of printed books—as opposed to hard-lettered manuscripts, which can often occupy an entirely different stratification of expense—really compare in price to a complete folio. A first edition of James Audubon’s gorgeously illustrated The Birds of America, published serially between 1827 and 1838, sold at Christie’s for 10.27 million dollars in 2010; The Bay Psalm Book printed in Boston in 1640 went for over 14 million dollars three years later. By comparison, should a Gutenberg Bible come up to auction anytime soon, it’s estimated it could fetch a cool 35 million. Of course, Shakespeare’s is the most expensive work of literature ever sold, even if scripture and ornithology have pocketed more:.

As evidence of the enchanted aura which the physical book possesses, consider how libraries so often advertise their possession of a folio, a physical book unnecessary at this point for generating new scholarship. The J.P. Morgan Library owns two, both on display at its Midtown Manhattan location, as does the staid Newberry Library, just outside of the Loop in Chicago. The Victoria & Albert Museum has three behind its rococo façade on Cromwell Road in London’s tony Kensington, while the Huntington in sunny Los Angeles has four, and the red-brick modernist monolith that is the British Library has five. The dreaming spires of Oxford and Cambridge each have four, while the University of London has only one. In the grand patriotic war of Shakespeareana between his native country and the United States, the latter firmly outpaces the former—fifty remain in the United Kingdom, while there are 149 in the United States. The granite lions of Fifth Avenue guard six at the New York Public Library, the Gilded Age Boston Library in puritan Copley Square has one, and the Free Library of Philadelphia has a copy annotated in John Milton’s hand. Even the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library has one. Thirty-one institutions of American higher education are in possession of a copy, including all the usual Ivy League suspects (not Dartmouth though, or Cornell). For sheer chutzpah, nothing compares to the Folger Shakespeare Library in terms of uncorrupted, undistilled, unadulterated Bardolatry, a veritable secular temple to Shakespeare with an astounding 82 copies, the single largest cache in existence, and 32 more than the entirety of Great Britain. All of those folios, purchased with money gained from Standard Oil and named for a distant relation to the coffee fortune, housed in a gorgeous silvery-grey art deco bunker on 2nd and East Capitol in Southeast Washington DC, only two blocks from the Capitol Building whose giant eggshell dome dominates your view after departing from the dark, cloistered Tudor environs of the library within.

But while the first folio may be a symbol, and an icon, and a relic, it is a material object before anything else, and it reminds us that all literature must be written on the body and through the body and with the body. Shakespeare’s plays are a static reminder of what was once physical, of the movement of performance, of blocking and staging and an actor’s comportment. The folio is record of breath and heartbeat rendered into the idiom of rag and ink. It is not some absolute and perfected soul, but rather each folio is a different body, linked only in their diverse and beautiful imperfections, gesturing towards that imagined spirit of Literature to which we aspire but never reach. Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford infamously reads that “cursed be he that moves my bones,” but he was never really buried there, not really. The actual tomb of the playwright can be found in these first folios, where with material accuracy and anatomical precision, the printers declared that Shakespeare had been “cured and perfect of their limbs.” If you seek his body, here it is.

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