October 16, 2014 | by

On Shakespeare’s Beehive

Over the past six-and-a-half years, I have been preoccupied with a single book, a copy of the second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionarie, printed in London by Henry Denham in 1580. I genuinely believe it to be a dictionary that once belonged to, and was fully annotated by, William Shakespeare. Confessing to this belief makes the preoccupation understandable.

Believing in such a book is, of course, one thing. Proving, or even making a compelling argument for the claim, is another. Long prior to the story of two booksellers buying this book on eBay being first reported by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, and the simultaneous unveiling of our website and our published study, my friend George Koppelman and I were attempting to play through the steps and anticipate how it might unfold. We had countless conversations over how absurd it was going to sound to scholar and non-scholar alike.

In a best-case scenario, we were looking at a tiring proposition. The implications of lending, from the vantage point of presumed expert opinion, the smallest bit of public support for even the plausibility for our thesis is dramatically more fraught with controversy, than being outspoken – either politely or impolitely – over what we have concluded and what we have produced.

Six months after going public, things have to this point unfolded largely as we expected. During this time we have only grown more confident in our thesis, as we continue to do research and locate further connections and associations that we feel, in sum, make an extremely persuasive case for Shakespeare being the annotator. Occasional updates to the project are supplied at shakespearesbeehive.com, where the annotated dictionary can freely be viewed in its entirely.

The purpose of opening my own blog contribution to the new Sanctuary Books website with this book – a book, that is, in fact, owned by a separate entity – is not to share or expand on any given element from our thesis, highlight any particular recent observation, or respond to any criticism that has emerged. I am opening with this post specifically because I felt it would be disingenuous to introduce visitors to myself and to our business, with personal thoughts on books and bookselling, and not begin with what – presumably for any antiquarian bookseller – is a bibliophilic pipe dream without equal.

For me, from a vocational standpoint, the dreaming in books began in Bethesda, Maryland at Second Story Books and Records. I was just months out of college and the first task I remember associated with the job was shelving. Somewhat surprisingly, despite being challenged by the whole notion, but especially the practice of organization, I took to it, and, to this day, the only thing I manage to be good at when it comes to organization are books. I have found my own personal panacea for melancholy induced sluggishness in the re-shelving and organization of already shelved and organized books.

I like the way that books feel, the tactile qualities that books have. Books make sense to me, and not just for what they contain; as objects they appeal to me in a way that no other object does. I have chosen to deal in large quantities of books, without regard to subject, place, time period, or size, in part because I can’t get enough of them, and in part because I am not of a specialist’s nature. Such an admission does not stop even the most voracious generalist bookseller from striving to string together many specialties. One specialty that Sanctuary Books has developed over time – manuscript books – was, in some respects, intentionally built as a mocking of the whole idea of specialization. Dating back to before books could be printed, these creations obliterate any restriction as to what a book can or cannot be, how it can look or what it can be about. The variety found among these books is truly astonishing, and we aim to celebrate that variety in our inventory and on this website.

The most interesting survivals among handwritten books, whether produced anonymously or otherwise, speak of the human reliance on the book to preserve memories and traditions (whether personal or collective), advance knowledge, and explore private obsessions. A fascination with the relationship of book to owner, so intimate in many manuscript books, also led to gradually collecting and acquiring as many copiously annotated printed books as possible, where the margins and interlinear spaces add to how the book is able to inform us.

There was never any thought that one day I might hold a book that could, from the annotations, be reasonably argued to have been Shakespeare’s own book with his own notes. Not everyone will agree that it is a reasonable argument based on our analysis and the evidence found in the fully annotated second edition of Baret’s Alvearie we have digitized and made available for further study. But putting aside that question, imagine the difficulty in feeling the need to keep it largely under wraps as you worked on the project over a number of years, constantly thinking about the mess you were getting yourself into, and ultimately deciding the book is what you believe it to be, putting it into a high security storage facility, and accepting that the inevitable attention and mud slinging to come is worth the trouble. The reality of two booksellers having traveled that path makes for a compelling and entertaining story, and I urge anyone interested in books to consider reading Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light and to follow the updates at shakespearesbeehive.com.

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