Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers review – a spine-tingling adventure | History books

Most of us who spend our time reading books gobble up their verbal contents, then set aside or at best shelve the container. But those receptacles have an identity and existence of their own: with their upright spines, their paper layered like skin and their protective jackets, books possess bodies and wear clothing, and they enjoy adventures or suffer mishaps as they circulate around the world. Overlooking the epic bulk of Troilus and CriseydeChaucer addresses the poem as his “little book” and sends it off into the future with fond parental solicitude, while in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair the heroine begins her career of rebellion by hurling a copy of Samuel Johnson’s officious, prescriptive dictionary out of the window.

In Portable Magic, Emma Smith wittily and ingeniously studies books as objects, possessed by readers not produced by writers. Her title, borrowed from an essay by Stephen King, emphasizes the mobility of these apparently inert items and their occult powers. Like motorcars or metaphors, books transport us to destinations unknown, and that propulsion has something uncanny about it. Smith begins with sorcerers conjuring as they consult books of spells; she goes on to examine the varieties of magical reading, which range from the “spiritual transcendence” of Saint Augustine, who was converted by a random perusal of the Bible, to the “dark arts” of a “necromantic volume” such as My fightdistributed to all households during the Third Reich as a sinister talisman, the “bibliographic manifestation of Hitlerism”.

Playwright Joe Orton, who was imprisoned for replacing illustrations in genteel books with homoerotic pin-ups, at home in north London in 1964. Photograph: George Elam / Daily Mail / Rex

In their packaging, early gospels brought heaven down to Earth, lettered in celestial gold and silver on regally purple parchment. Other books scrutinized by Smith have been desecrated or, as she cheekily puts it, “visually pimped”. Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were imprisoned for replacing illustrations in genteel books with homoerotic pinups, although the Islington library that had them prosecuted now displays the defaced copies as artistic treasures. Elsewhere, Smith locates books with an incendiary intent: a paperback murder mystery from the apartheid era in South Africa secretes a bomb-making manual inside, and a 17th-century Venetian missal encloses a boxed pistol with a silken bookmark that activates its trigger. Better these lethal boobytraps than the blandly curated shelves of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose interior designer supplied her with job lots of “blooks” chosen for the soothing color of their spines.

Etymologically, all books are analogues of the Bible, since the word “biblion” derives from a Semitic term for papyrus or scroll. On her way through the centuries, Smith teases some playful neologisms out of that ancient root. Fortune-tellers indulge in “bibliomancy” by opening books at random 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 incinerated for fuel during a new ice age. Best of all is Smith’s translation of the scholarly term incunabula as “biblio-babies”: these 15th-century printed books derive their name from the Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle, which makes them “infants from Gutenberg’s nursery”. Nearer to the present, mass-marketed books challenge readers to multiply in their own unmechanical way. “Paperbacks,” Smith declares, “were the baby boomers of the book demographic, and Dr. Spock’s The Pocket Book of Baby and Child Care was one of the new format’s first huge successes. ”

Smith reads with all her senses alert. She listens to pages rustling when turned, sniffs bindings like a winebibber relishing the bouquet of a vintage, and deliciously inhales the woody vanilla musk of cheap secondhand bookshops; she knows the recipes for making ink, which in the case of one Norse saga involved boiling the berries of an Arctic shrub. Indulgent about the rings left by coffee mugs, she also treasures the spattered sauce on her kitchen copy of Claudia Roden’s With: books cater to every appetite.

Although Smith defines herself as a “bookish academic”, she balks at Arcimboldo’s 16th-century portrait of “a man constructed from books”, with fluttery pages for hair, ribs made of stacked tomes, and bookmarks for fingers. The monstrous figure in the painting reminds her that “the book-human relationship is reciprocal: if we are made up of books, books are made up of us”. Proving the point, she notices that a small Spanish-language Bible confiscated from a migrant at the US border is “curved around the contours of a body”, having been stuffed in a pocket for comfort and companionship during the long trek north to the Rio Grande.

In holding a book we clasp or embrace it or even nurse it on our laps: the meeting of minds relaxes into a closer communion, and when you finish Portable Magic its pages will be spotted with your fingerprints and dusted by traces of your DNA. Smith encourages this intimacy by puffing “Phew!” after a particularly strenuous page of argumentation and thanking readers who stay the course. Her wise, funny, endearingly 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). To support the Guardian spirit Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.