#BookReview Portable Magic by Emma Smith

Portable MagicAbout the Book

Most of what we say about books is really about the words inside them: the rosy nostalgic glow for childhood reading, the lifetime companionship of a much-loved novel. But books are things as well as words, objects in our lives as well as worlds in our heads. And just as we crack their spines, loosen their leaves and write in their margins, so they disrupt and disorder us in turn. All books are, as Stephen King put it, ‘a uniquely portable magic’. Here, Emma Smith shows us why.

Portable Magic unfurls an exciting and iconoclastic new story of the book in human hands, exploring when, why and how it acquired its particular hold over humankind. Gathering together a millennium’s worth of pivotal encounters with volumes big and small, Smith reveals that, as much as their contents, it is books’ physical form – their ‘bookhood’ – that lends them their distinctive and sometimes dangerous magic. From the Diamond Sutra to Jilly Cooper’s Riders, to a book made of wrapped slices of cheese, this composite artisanal object has, for centuries, embodied and extended relationships between readers, nations, ideologies and cultures, in significant and unpredictable ways.

Exploring the unexpected and unseen consequences of our love affair with books, Portable Magic hails the rise of the mass-market paperback, and dismantles the myth that print began with Gutenberg; it reveals how our reading habits have been shaped by American soldiers, and proposes new definitions of a ‘classic’ – and even of the book itself. Ultimately, it illuminates the ways in which our relationship with the written word is more reciprocal – and more turbulent – than we tend to imagine.

Format: Hardback (352 pages)      Publisher: Allen Lane
Publication date: 28th April 2022 Genre: Nonfiction

Find Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers on Goodreads

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My Review

Portable Magic is a fascinating, in-depth examination of books as physical objects, from their earliest incarnation as collections of scrolls or wax tablets to modern paperbacks and, yes, ebooks.  The blurb gives you an idea of the breadth of the book’s subject matter and this review would itself be as long as a book if I mentioned everything of interest I found within its pages. Therefore, I’ve confined myself to picking out a few things that caught my eye in various chapters.

  • Precursors to the paperback were softback editions designed especially for the armed forces that would fit neatly into the pocket of a uniform
  • Annuals and highly decorated gift books were the first commercial products designed to be given away by the purchaser
  • Book tokens emerged to alleviate the ‘stress’ of choosing books as gifts
  • ‘Shelfies’ have a long history with figures such as Madame de Pompadour being depicted holding books or with books in the background. Marilyn Monroe was famously photographed holding a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses that it looks like she’s a fair way through.
  • There is ‘a gestural vocabulary’ associated with handling books, e.g. turning pages from the corner far edge, using a finger or marker to refer to different points, flexing a spine to make it stay open.
  • Book burning has taken place for purposes other than censorship including as part of waste management, at the hands of a book’s author, for publicity or as part of a ritual.
  • As the case of Lady Chatterley’s Lover showed, efforts to ban books are often good for sales.
  • Books can have a talismanic quality. During the First World War, steel covered Bibles designed to be carried in the breast pocket were widely advertised as gifts for servicemen.
  • Bibliomancy is the act of opening a book at random for prophetic wisdom.
  • When we read a book, thousands of microscopic particles of our DNA rub off on its pages. ‘Inside each book, there is a miniscule, uncatalogued but carefully preserved library of its human handlers.’
  • E-readers, the author argues, want to be books. ‘Text is presented in vertical orientation (an e-reader is portrait, rather than landscape, in format), pages are flipped from right to left to move sequentially through the text and there is a facility to bookmark or underline particular passages.’

Those of us for whom books play a significant part in our lives will surely identify with the following passage. ‘We are all made up of the books we have loved and, more, of the books we have owned, gifted, studied, revered, lived by, lost, thrown aside, dusted, argued over, learned by heart, borrowed and never returned, failed to finish and used as doorstops or to raise a computer monitor.’

The fact that nearly fifty pages are taken up with notes and index demonstrates that Portable Magic is the product of extensive research. Although there were one or two points where there was perhaps a little too much detail, I found Portable Magic an absolutely fascinating read.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of Allen Lane via Readers First.

In three words: Informative, erudite, expansive

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About the Author

Emma Smith was born and brought up in Leeds, went unexpectedly to university in Oxford, and never really left. She is now Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College and the author of the Sunday Times bestseller This Is Shakespeare. She enjoys silent films, birdwatching, and fast cars.

Connect with Emma


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