Pros: Key aspects of Shakespeare’s life are boiled down to concise, one-page entries.
Cons: Not a book to read in one sitting.
At the launch of Ivy Press’s 30-Second Shakespeare, I was fortunate enough to speak to the book’s editor, Dr Ros Barber. A passionate and enthusiastic individual, Ros explained to me that she initially thought that putting this book together would be little more than a fact-collating exercise. But she soon discovered that creating this book contained a riveting challenge – that of trying to boil down an enormous range of subjects often reserved for scholars into something understandable for anyone. Furthermore, many subjects which she thought might be a chore to collate ended up providing a fascinating experience for her to write about. For example, one of the topics she enjoyed writing up most was the subject of the many forgeries of Shakespeare documents which have come and gone throughout the years. For me, it goes to show that no matter how much one knows about a subject, there is always something fun and surprising left to be discovered. And this book is the perfect illustration of this fact.
As you may have guessed, 30-Second Shakespeare seeks to explore the work, life and legacy of English literature’s most famous author by breaking it down into 50 easily digestible chunks. Each of these is explained in ‘30 seconds’, i.e. a concise, one-page entry that gives the keys facts about an aspect of Shakespeare’s work. Each entry also features a one-line conversation starter about the topic, and a short paragraph which is a prompt for further research or reading. Every chapter is furthermore accompanied by a beautiful, full-page illustration, often a collage of drawings, etchings and quotes from various editions of Shakespeare’s plays throughout the years. The topics are wide-ranging, from the historical context of Shakespeare’s life (like religious and political influences seen through his work), to his literary style (such as the strong female characters in his plays), all the way to his legacy (e.g. the many expressions he coined). As someone who has seen a lot of Shakespeare, I did not expect to find much new information, but in fact I discovered many fascinating things. I didn’t know, for example, that so little is known about Shakespeare’s actual life that many question whether he even wrote the plays attributed to him.
Ros Barber and her team have got the level of detail just right: each entry is short enough to leave you wanting more, but offers suggestions for further research too. They have also succeeded in covering a wide range of topics without the result feeling either too compacted or stretched too thin. Contrary to what one might expect of a book about Shakespeare, the book is not written in an overly formal or literary style; in fact, it’s a real pleasure to read. Furthermore, it’s a beautiful volume: the unbleached hard cover, high quality paper and gorgeous illustrations ensure that it will be perfect addition to many a distinguished bookshelf.
Overall, 30-Second Shakespeare is a very readable book. Anyone, with any level of knowledge of English literature, would be able to hold a dinner party conversation about any aspect of Shakespeare’s life and work after reading it, and this is certainly what Ros set out to achieve. This is not a book to be read in one sitting – rather, it would be best enjoyed as a coffee-table book, to be browsed through occasionally, or as a reference to turn to if a particular topic comes to mind. Ivy Press publish similar format books on a wide range of topics: jazz, opera, physics, meteorology… and I dare say that with Christmas around the corner, a book from this range would make a classy and thoughtful gift.
Editor: Ros Barber
Foreword: Mark Rylance
Publisher: Ivy Press
More Information: http://www.ivypress.co.uk/books/30-second-shakespeare/