#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

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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.

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#BookReview Mouth to Mouth by Antoine Wilson

Mouth To MouthAbout the Book

A struggling author is stuck at the airport, his flight endlessly delayed. As he stares at the departure board and browses the shops, he bumps into a former classmate of his, Jeff, who is waiting for the same flight. The charismatic Jeff invites the narrator to drinks in the First Class lounge, and there, swearing him to secrecy, begins telling him the fascinating and disturbing story of his life, starting with a pivotal incident from his youth.

Alone on the beach, he noticed a man drowning in the rough surf, his fate resting in Jeff’s hands. Overwhelmed but ultimately determined to help, Jeff rescued and resuscitated the unconscious man. Unexpectedly traumatized by the event, Jeff develops a fixation on the man he saved, sure that they are now inextricably linked. Upon discovering that the man, Francis, is a renowned art dealer, Jeff finds a job at his gallery in hopes of connecting with Francis and processing the event. Even though Francis seems to have no recollection of the incident, he takes Jeff under his wing, and Jeff becomes increasingly involved in Francis’s life, dating his daughter and attending important art world parties. As the two grow closer, Jeff notices some of Francis’s more unsavoury characteristics – his tendency to cheat artists and carry on affairs – but, convinced that their encounter on the beach is fated, brushes his concerns aside and continues to pursue a deeper connection with Francis, even as the nature of their relationship grows darker…

Format: Hardback (192 pages)      Publisher: Atlantic Books
Publication date: 3rd March 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Mystery

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My Review

My first thought is that I’m not sure the long blurb does the book any favours – personally, I would have limited it to the first paragraph – as it discloses quite a lot of what happens although, admittedly, not the final climactic reveal. Having said that this is a novel which exudes a pervading air of menace and in which the author skilfully ratchets up the tension bit by bit.

Jeff’s perhaps natural desire to find out more about the man whose life he saved becomes more than mere curiosity but something bordering on obsession. Jeff finds himself drawn closer and closer to Francis Arsenault, an art dealer with a supposed remarkable ‘eye’ for what will sell, a skill that doesn’t seem to extend to recognising the man who saved his life.  However, as Jeff discovers, Francis is a master in the art of maintaining a double life (Francis Arsenault isn’t even his real name) and of using others for his own ends. The world of art dealing thus makes the ideal environment for him to inhabit. ‘The only reason Francis is in this business is because it’s the most easily manipulated market in the world, and he’s a master manipulator.’

The book is in essence about consequences as Jeff finds himself carried along by the train of events, events in a way he enabled by saving Francis’s life. As he confides, ‘I wanted him to be good, though, I wanted to feel that I had done a good thing not only for him but for all the people he came in contact with.’ As Jeff’s life becomes more closely intertwined with Francis’s through his relationship with Francis’s daughter, Chloe, he finds his loyalties tested and begins to wonder just what he unleashed when he saved Francis’s life. What if Francis is far from good? Is Jeff then implicated in Francis’s deceit?

But, of course, we only have Jeff’s word for all of this. The narrator begins to wonder about Jeff’s motivation for telling him the story. ‘Was it excavation, though, Jeff getting everything off his chest? Or was he painting for me a kind of self-portrait? And what is a self-portrait if not self-serving?’

Mouth to Mouth is a compulsively readable, deliciously disquieting little novel with a sting in its tail.

I received a review copy courtesy of Atlantic Books via Readers First.

In three words: Taut, compelling, dark

Try something similarThe Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard

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Antoine WilsonAbout the Author

Antoine Wilson is the author of the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, Best New American Voices and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications, and h is a contributing editor for A Public Space.  A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and recipient of a Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin, he lives with his family in Los Angeles.

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