In Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers, Oxford University Shakespeare studies professor Emma Smith offers a lively and engaging survey of the history of the book, focusing on the “material combination of form and content” she calls “bookhood.” It’s a “book about books, rather than words,” that describes with both insight and affection the enduring power of the book as a physical object.
Organized thematically (Smith even suggests the self-contained chapters can be read in any order), Portable Magic covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency. The opening essay, on Gutenberg’s “invention” of movable type in the 15th century, sets the book’s often iconoclastic tone. Pointing out that this method was used in Asia almost a century before Gutenberg, Smith argues that the idea that print is a Western innovation is a myth, invoked primarily in the service of European colonization.
In subsequent chapters, Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism. Some of the topics she takes on include the history of paperback books and the practices of giving books as gifts and book collecting. In the latter, she tells the story of Harry Elkins Widener, a well-known book collector from Philadelphia who sank to the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic, carrying a 1598 collection of Francis Bacon’s essays in his pocket. Other essays consider the depiction of books in works of art and the central role of religious scriptures, as well as oddities like books bound in human skin and the 17th-century Venetian book containing a small pistol that could be fired using its silk bookmark.
Smith devotes a chapter to the subject of the destruction of books, too, noting that book burning is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” The publishing business’s practice of pulping books returned from retailers (some 30% to 40% of those shipped), she explains, has eliminated far more books than any conflagration. In two chapters, one centered entirely on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Smith reviews some of the contentious, and not always unambiguous, issues surrounding free expression and censorship.
Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.