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Savoring the Serendipity at the Folger Library

By John Kelly
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

It was not uncommon, during the decade and a half he spent as head librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library, for Richard Kuhta to stroll through the hallowed institution's underground stacks and pull from the shelves a book.

It was never the same book, which was the whole point. Rare books are like snowflakes or children: no two exactly alike. Richard could never hope to peruse every book in the huge collection, but he could indulge in regular doses of serendipity.

"It's a great feeling to pick up a book you didn't know was there," Richard told me recently, "to see a signature or an annotation, to see a distinguishing feature that's in that book and no other book."

We were in the Founders' Room at the library, the austere face of Queen Elizabeth I staring down at us from a 1579 portrait. Richard had arranged on a table in the center of the room some of his favorite books from the 15 years he's spent as the Folger's Eric Weinmann Librarian, a post he'll retire from Monday.

Richard was partial to a wonderfully illustrated 1579 first edition of Edmund Spenser's "The Shepheardes Calendar," but my eyes were drawn to another book, open to a familiar face.

"This is an icon," Richard said, pulling closer a First Folio, the collection of Shakespeare plays published in 1623. "This is a Michelangelo's 'David.' This is van Gogh's 'Sunflowers.' This is Picasso. . . . It's something that has come down to us that somehow stands for Western civilization."

The Folger owns 79 First Folios, a third of the 242 copies in the world. I looked at it hungrily, trying to get up the nerve to ask whether I could touch it.

"Feel the paper," Richard said, reading my mind. I carefully turned a page somewhere in the second act of "Measure for Measure."

We moved down the table to a tiny hardback.

"If you saw this book in a flea market and paid $1.50 for it, you probably would have paid too much," Richard said, lifting the hardback. "It's a very cheap edition of Shakespeare's poems, done in the 19th century. . . . There's nothing to recommend this book. It's positively undistinguished, except" -- and here he opened the book like a magician producing a dove -- "this is the book that was owned and signed by Walt Whitman."

Richard has a fondness for that sort of book, what experts call an "association copy," a book associated with a certain individual. "I like to think books are valuable for one of four reasons, either because of their rarity, their beauty, their place in history or who owned them."

He picked up a 1621 copy of Sir Philip Sydney's "Arcadia" and turned to the page where, nearly 400 years ago, the owner had written her name: "Elizabeth Bride, her book, given her by Lord Laurence -- a ugly Lord -- a rogue of a Lord."

Richard chuckled. "This is what I mean about the voices that are still coming out of these books. Maybe she wasn't so sure she wanted to accept this book from this lord."

Books tell stories other than those set in type on their pages. What are we to make, for example, of "Fugitive Pieces," a collection of poems written by Shakespearean actor John Philip Kemble? Scholars don't know whom Kemble intended to woo with his gushing love poetry, but they do know that he was immediately stricken with remorse. The actor spent the rest of his life trying to buy up and burn each of the 200 copies.

"One copy survived," Richard said. The owner? Kemble's daughter, Fanny, who signed it on the title page and hid it from her father.

One plain book on the table appeared to be almost an afterthought. No Morocco leather binding, no gilt, no marbled endpages. It was "The history of the tryall of Cheualry," published in 1605. The binding was hand-stitched, the knot still intact. The pages were rough and untrimmed.

"This is what a book looked like in 1605," Richard said. "This is the raw, naked thing itself. This book is unique; it's priceless."

For an instant, I imagined we weren't in a climate-controlled room in the 21st century but outside St. Paul's Cathedral in the 17th. Richard Kuhta was browsing the booksellers' stalls, mindful that he mustn't be late to the Globe Theatre, where that man Shakespeare had a new play.

For a video tour of some Folger treasures, visit http://www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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