Portable Magic by Emma Smith

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

If classic status is registered in material book form, the stages leading up to this are also readable across different editions of the same work. Rachel Carson’s devastating account of the human and environmental consequences of chemical pesticides, Silent Spring, is a great example of a work that morphs from minor polemic to bestseller to masterpiece across half a century of hardback, paperback, mass-market, specialist-bound and ultimately classic formats. Tracing this work’s evolution through different bookhoods reveals how materiality shapes the way we read.

Bookhood, to Emma Smith, who is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Hertford College, and who has published widely on Shakespeare and other early dramatists as well as on books’ paths through their owners (notably in her work on Shakespeare’s First Folio, reviewed on Shiny in June), is the nature of a particular book, an edition, one’s own copy of a book. The main thesis of the book is there is value in discussing the particular and materiality of books, not just the really expensive, fancy ones, but our own well-loved volumes.

Opening strongly with a summoning of the dangerous book of folklore and fairy tale, this engaging and entertaining book takes a brisk journey through all sorts of aspects of bookhood, from the “shelfies” established through three women’s portrayals of themselves and their reading through a chapter on book burning and ending with one asking “What is a book?” She makes the point that you could read the chapters in any order and, with the useful referencing to other chapters in each, you could, although it’s not necessary (this also links to her chapters on “Choose your own Adventure” and artistic incursions into book texts) and I proceeded in the usual fashion. 

Smith is primarily a scholar of Shakespeare and, from her work on the First Folio and its post-publication life, an expert on the annotation and passing on of books, and she really shines in the chapters where she is within that expertise. Her chapter “The Empire Writes Back” showcases how early translations of the Bible into Indigenous American languages were intercultural and how their users were in dialogue with them, and there’s a great chapter on annotations and interactions between a particular author and their reader. There is also a strong strand looking at power structures and inequalities, whether that’s the narrative that the Gutenberg Bible was the first work in moveable type (other cultures were doing that far earlier) or the flooding of the American Army with improving books to make sure people were thinking in the right way and created as a post-war reading market. There’s also a notable piece on the binding of the Black poet Phillis Wheatley’s work which is interesting indeed. 

As befits a book by an academic on a literary subject, there are notes and a full index. Anyone who reads my reviews of non-fiction books here regularly knows that I’m fussy about notes and here we have the “narrative” form of notes per chapter, which hampers slightly when you go to look up a reference. I wonder how the Kindle version works that … 

Near the end, Smith comes up with a daring and slightly provocative definition of a book herself (given that she also admits to having piles of unread books in her office): ‘A book becomes a book in the hands of its readers. It is an interactive object. A book that is not handled and read is not really a book at all’. This is a book, a nice object in itself and afforded serious status by its classic orange and white spine, that deserves to be handled and read and will make a great present for the book-lover in your life. 

Portable Magic has been shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2023 – the winner to be announced on 13 November. 

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Liz Dexter has more books than has time to read and now also has been forced to confront their materiality. Oh, well, there are worse problems to have. She blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com.

Emma Smith, Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (Penguin, 2023). ‎ 978- 0141991391, 343pp., paperback.

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