Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers review – a chilling adventure | history books

mMost of us who spend our time reading books gobble up their verbal content and then put the container aside or at best on the shelf. But those receptacles have their own identity and existence: with their upright spines, their papers layered like skins and their protective jackets, books have bodies and wear clothes, and enjoy adventures or suffer accidents as they circulate around the world. Overlooking the epic bulk of Troilus and CriseydeChaucer calls the poem his “booklet” and sends it into the future with loving parental care, while in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair the heroine begins her career of rebellion by hurling a copy of Samuel Johnson’s unofficial, prescriptive dictionary out the window.

In Portable magic, Emma Smith wittily and ingeniously studies books as objects possessed by readers not produced by writers. Its title, taken from an essay by Stephen King, emphasizes the mobility of these apparently inert objects and their occult powers. Like cars or metaphors, books transport us to unknown destinations, and there’s something eerie about that propulsion. Smith begins with wizards doing magic while consulting spellbooks; she goes on to explore the varieties of magical reading, which range from the “spiritual transcendence” of Saint Augustine, who was converted by a random reading of the Bible, to the “dark arts” of a “necromantic book” such as my fightdistributed to all households during the Third Reich as a sinister talisman, the “bibliographic manifestation of Hitlerism”.

Playwright Joe Orton, imprisoned for replacing genteel book illustrations with homoerotic pin-ups, at home in North London in 1964. Photo: George Elam/Daily Mail/Rex

In their wrapping, early gospels brought heaven to earth, lettered in heavenly gold and silver on regal purple parchment. Other books under Smith’s scrutiny have been defaced or, as she boldly puts it, “visually pimped.” Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were jailed for replacing genteel book illustrations with homoerotic pin-ups, although the Islington library they prosecuted now lists the damaged copies as artistic treasures. Elsewhere, Smith finds books of incendiary intent: a paperback murder mystery from apartheid-era South Africa includes a bomb-making guide, and a 17th-century Venetian missal encloses a pistol in a box with a silk bookmark that activates the trigger. . Better these deadly traps than the blandly curated planks of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose interior designer gave her many blooks for the soothing color of their spines.

Etymologically, all books are analogs of the Bible, as the word “biblion” is derived from a Semitic term for papyrus or scroll. On her way through the ages, Smith teases some playful neologisms from that ancient root. Fortune tellers enjoy “bibliomancy” by randomly opening books to find prophetic guidance, Orton’s indecent collages are described as a “creative biblioclasm”, and the disaster movie The day after tomorrow exhibits an act of “bibliocide” when books in the New York Public Library are burned for fuel during another ice age. Best of all, Smith’s translation of the scientific term incunabula as “biblio-babies”: These 15th-century printed books take their name from the Latin for swaddle or crib, making them “babies from Gutenberg’s nursery.” Closer to the present, mass-marketed books challenge readers to reproduce in their own unmechanical way. “Paperbacks,” explains Smith, “were the baby boomers of the demographic book, and Dr. Spock’s The pocketbook of baby and childcare was one of the first big successes of the new format.”

Smith reads alertly with all her senses. She listens to pages rustle as they are turned, sniffs tires like a wine drinker enjoying the bouquet of a vintage, and inhales wonderfully the woody vanilla musk of cheap thrift bookstores; she knows the recipes for making ink, which in the case of a Norse saga involved cooking the berries of an arctic bush. Indulging in the rings coffee mugs leave behind, she also cherishes the splashed sauce on her kitchen copy of Claudia Roden’s Of: Books cater for every appetite.

Though Smith describes herself as a “bookish academic,” she declines Arcimboldo’s 16th-century portrait of “a man made of books,” with pages flapping in front of her, ribs made of stacked tomes, and bookmarks for fingers. The monstrous figure in the painting reminds her that “the relationship between book and man is reciprocal: if we are made up of books, then books are made up of us”. To prove her point, she notes that a small Spanish-language Bible confiscated from a migrant on the U.S. border was “bent around the contours of a body,” and tucked into a pocket for comfort and companionship. during the long trek north to the Rio Groots.

When we hold a book, hug or hug it or even cherish it in our lap: the meeting of spirits relaxes in a closer community, and when you’re ready Portable magic the pages are stained with your fingerprints and sprinkled with traces of your DNA. Smith encourages this intimacy by huffing “Phew!” after a very strenuous page full of argumentation and thanks to the readers who stay on their toes. Her wise, funny, endearing personal book made me want to shake her hand, or give her a grateful, disembodied hug.

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith is published by Allen Lane (£20). In support of the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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