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Rare Shakespeare first edition on sale for $7.5 million

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Four hundred years ago, what may be the most significant book in the English language first appeared in print.

EMMA SMITH: If we didn't have this book, you know, just - the implications of that are really substantial.

CHANG: That's Emma Smith of the University of Oxford. She's talking about William Shakespeare's "First Folio," a near-complete collection of 36 of the Bard's plays published seven years after his death.

SMITH: If we didn't have this book, we wouldn't care about Shakespeare at all. Half of the plays would have just been lost. We wouldn't have "Julius Caesar." We wouldn't have "The Tempest." We wouldn't have "Macbeth." And we wouldn't have all the kind of cultural significance that they have got.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

To commemorate the book's anniversary, a rare books dealer in London has collected a copy of the First Folio, along with the second, third and fourth editions of the book. Smith got a preview.

SMITH: I'd never seen all those four 17th century books open in the same place at the same time.

BLOCK: And that's saying something. She's a Shakespeare scholar.

CHANG: The bookseller Pom Harrington also tracked down a first edition of Shakespeare's poems, and he put the whole lot of five books up for sale at $10.5 million. The "First Folio" is the priciest at $7.5 million.

POM HARRINGTON: It's this very fresh and sort of vibrant copy. It's very authentic. It sort of - it crackles as you open the paper.

BLOCK: And he says that fresh condition is rare, especially for popular titles like Shakespeare's.

HARRINGTON: Because it was read to death in a lot of cases. And they didn't have lighting. They used candles and candle wax strips on these books. And so damage can happen.

BLOCK: But don't even think about giving these books the white glove treatment.

HARRINGTON: We do not use white gloves. They are nasty and evil and harm books. So we wash our hands, and they're dry. And if you have clean, dry hands, you can handle these books.

CHANG: Now, if the mere thought of Shakespeare has you thinking, no, thanks; I'd rather not relive ninth grade English, the Bard's friends who assembled the "First Folio" left some advice in the book's preface. Here's Emma Smith again.

SMITH: They say, read him, therefore, again and again. And then if you do not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger not to understand him - so kind of saying you can't not like this stuff. You can only not get it. That's the only way.

BLOCK: The "Fourth Folio" has already sold for $235,000, the poems for 750,000. But the first three folios should be on display later this week at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair if you want to catch a glimpse.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKI SONG, "BEFORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.