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

Emma Smith’s wise and funny history of the physical book, from the Bible to boobytraps and Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘blooks’, is a thing to cherish

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 Criseyde, Chaucer 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, emphasises 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 Mein Kampf, distributed to all households during the Third Reich as a sinister talisman, the “bibliographic manifestation of Hitlerism”.

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