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Simulacra better than originals: on First Folios and ultra-deluxe NRSVs

September 9, 2011

OK, let’s have a show of hands.  Who here has personally handled a Shakespeare First Folio? 


Well, I want to brag:  I have handled one (although I was required to wear gloves).  And in a sense it was an incomparable experience – to physically touch a piece of history.  But it is not an experience I want to repeat.  Why not?  Well, although this copy was kept in museum conditions, it was ultimately a smelly, somewhat filthy, rotting book.  I found myself wondering whether the gloves were to protect the book or the reader.  And pages were missing.

When I want to actually read the First Folio, I read my 1996 Norton Facsimile which cost me $100. According to, you can still find new or near-new copies in the $100-$200 range. The irony is that the Norton is in some ways better than the original:  the Norton was compiled from multiple First Folios (did you know the publisher changed the plates in the middle of printing of the First Folio?) and unlike most First Folios, it is complete.  

imposing-stoneI thought about facsimiles as I read Mark Bertrand’s ode to the letterpress Arion Press Lectern NRSV.  (Please go and visit Mark’s post – if only to see the impressive video links that Mark gives.)   Mark is clearly in love with the edition from a distance – the problem being that the price tag of $10,000 each (give or take a few thousand dollars) makes these volumes inaccessible but oh so desirable.

I have seen one of these Lectern NRSVs in person, and you can too – if you are interested in bookmaking, the the next time you are in San Francisco take the wonderful Arion Press tour and visit their gallery.  They are minor works of art – in fact, I know a collector who owns one of these exquisite volumes, and while he takes pleasure in his ownership, he only uses it as an art object – not as a book.

Keeping with the art object theme, the Arion Press Gallery lives true to its “gallery” moniker – it is set up as a museum, with its treasures locked behind display glass.


Perhaps the volume that brought Arion Press its greatest fame was its 1979 edition of Moby Dick, with 100 engravings by Barry Moser.  This book originally went for $1000, but today fetches up to twenty times that price.  The Arion catalogue describes it glowingly: 

Format: 15 by 10 inches, 594 pages. The type is handset Goudy Modern with Leviathan Titling, display capitals designed for this book. Printed in black and blue ink on dampened Barcham Green handmade paper, bearing a whale watermark, made specially for this edition. Bound in full blue Moroccan goatskin, contained in blue cloth slipcase. Edition of 250 copies, $1,000.00. Out of print.


The Arion Moby Dick is a stunning example of the typesetter’s art.  And the Moser illustrations add to one’s appreciation and understanding of the text.  How do I know this?  Because I actually read every single page of the entire Moser-Melville volume, in a cheap facsimile edition.  (Well, it was cheap when I bought it – the price has doubled since then.) Now here is the strange thing:  since buying the facsimile has become mandatory for owners of the Arion Press edition (one thinks twice about throwing a $20,000 volume into one’s backpack to read at the beach), this cheap facsimile edition (and a now out-of-print limited edition “deluxe” facsimile) get displayed at exhibitions right alongside the original.  Because this is the volume that collectors actually read, even the simulacra has become collectible.

Back to collecting NRSVs:  Of course, any of us can buy a perfectly adequate NRSV for a mere $13 if we want.  But perhaps you, like me, prefer books with pictures.  If you have a yen to purchase a colorful (but tasteful) illustrated lectern NRSV there are some moderately-priced options.  There is a facsimile NRSV based on the Urbino Bible printed in six colors (including gold – an impressive effect!) that was published by Ted Turner (of CNN fame).  I bought mine new for under $100, and according to Amazon,  copies are still available at that price in excellent condition.  Or you can buy the reproduction volumes of the hand-lettered St. John’s Bible, with its amazing illustrations.  The series will ultimately be seven volumes and is still in progress. The four-color commercial reproductions resemble large museum catalogues in their feel and print quality and run for $40-$50 each at Amazon.

genesis page 1 amd 2

(Apologies to Baudrillard.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. September 9, 2011 7:55 am

    I am collecting Barry Moser’s wonderful books; his illustrations are unspeakably beautiful. I have his Pennyroyal editions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well his volumes of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the Beast, and The Pennyroyal Caxton Holy Bible. I’ve just orderd his Dracula, too.

  2. September 9, 2011 1:59 pm

    I was thinking about writing about the Moser’s Bible, which I own not in its original edition but in a — you guess it — cheap facsimile, but I am afraid that it would simply sound too repetitive.

    His volumes are uniformly impressive, and add a cinematic quality to reading the books. Craig, I am sure you already know this, but skeptics can get a sense of that by reading the first page of his Moby Dick above. Moreover, his style of illustration produces images that are just abstract enough to fire up the imagination, without heavy-handed insertion of images along the line of traditional book illustrators. To explain my latter point, I’ll arbitrarily pick on N. C. Wyeth, who was a fine illustrator, but produced images that tend to fill one’s mind with mental images. In contrast, Moser, who often illustrates a close-up of a face or a dynamic action, conveys something different — a personality trait of a character, or a moment of action, or the grotesque size of an object — in a way that does not erase our own naturally generated mental images.

    I have not collected as much Moser has you have, Craig, but I could easily do so given half a chance. Maybe I could persuade you sometime to post your thoughts on the Pennyroyal Caxton Holy Bible.


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