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

MMost of us who spend our time reading books gobble up their verbal content, then set aside or, at best, put away the container. But these receptacles have an identity and an existence of their own: with their straight spines, their papers layered like skin and their protective jackets, the books have bodies and wear clothes, and they savor adventures or suffer misadventures. traveling around the world. Overlooking the epic mass of Troilus and CriseydeChaucer approaches the poem as his “little book” and sends it into the future with loving parental care, while in Thackeray vanity lounge the heroine begins her career as a rebel by throwing a copy of Samuel Johnson’s unofficial, prescriptive dictionary out of the window.

In portable magic, Emma Smith studies with spirit and ingenuity books as objects, possessed by readers not produced by writers. Its title, borrowed from an essay by Stephen King, emphasizes the mobility of these seemingly inert objects and their occult powers. Like automobiles or metaphors, books transport us to unknown destinations, and there is something strange about this propulsion. Smith begins with wizards conjuring by consulting spell books; she goes on to examine the varieties of magical reading, which range from the “spiritual transcendence” of Saint Augustine, who was converted by random reading of the Bible, to the “dark arts” of a “necromantic volume” such as Mein Kampfdistributed to every household under the Third Reich as a sinister talisman, the “bibliographic manifestation of Hitlerism.”

Playwright Joe Orton, who was jailed for replacing distinguished book illustrations with homoerotic pin-ups, at his home in north London in 1964. Photography: George Elam/Daily Mail/Rex

In their packaging, the early gospels brought heaven to earth, written in heavenly gold and silver on mauve parchment. Other books Smith has reviewed have been desecrated or, as she cheekily puts it, “visually pimping.” Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell have been jailed for replacing distinguished book illustrations with homoerotic pin-ups, although the Islington library that sued them now displays the defaced copies as art treasures. Elsewhere, Smith locates books with inflammatory intent: a paperback murder mystery from apartheid-era South Africa secretes a bomb-making manual inside, and a 17th-century Venetian missal contains a boxed pistol with a silk bookmark that activates its trigger. Better these deadly traps than the well-organized shelves of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose interior designer provided her with plenty of “bloods” 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 his way through the centuries, Smith teases some playful neologisms from this ancient root. Fortune tellers engage in “bibliomancy” by randomly opening books for prophetic guidance, Orton’s indecent collages are described as “creative biblioclasm,” and the disaster movie Two days later exposes an act of “bibliocide” when books from the New York Public Library are incinerated as fuel during a new Ice Age. Best of all is Smith’s translation of the scholarly term incunabula as “library-babies”: these 15th-century printed books take their name from the Latin for swaddling or cradle, making them “Gutenberg’s nursery infants.” Closer to today, mass marketed books inspire readers to multiply in their own non-mechanical way. “Paperbacks,” says Smith, “were the baby boomers of book demographics, and Dr. Spock The Baby and Child Care Pocket Book was one of the new format’s first big hits.

Smith reads with all his senses alert. She listens to the rustling pages as you turn them, sniffs the bookbindings like a wine drinker savoring the bouquet of a vintage, and deliciously sniffs the vanilla-woody musk of cheap second-hand bookstores; she knows the recipes for making ink, which in the case of a Norse saga involved boiling the berries of an arctic shrub. Indulgent to the rings left by coffee cups, she also cherishes the sauce splattered on her kitchen copy of Claudia Roden. Medium: books satisfy all appetites.

Although Smith defines herself as a “bookish scholar”, she balks at Arcimboldo’s portrayal of “a man constructed from books”, with floating pages for hair, ribs made of stacked tomes and bookmarks for books. fingers. The monstrous figure in the painting reminds him that “the book-human relationship is reciprocal: if we are made of books, the books are made of us”. Proving the point, she notes 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 into a pocket for comfort and companionship during the long journey north to the Rio. Big.

Holding a book, we hug it, kiss it, or even nurture it on our lap: the meeting of minds relaxes into closer fellowship, and when you’re done portable magic its pages will be stained with your fingerprints and sprinkled with traces of your DNA. Smith encourages this intimacy by blowing “Phew!” after a page of particularly arduous argument and thanks to the readers who stay the course. His wise, funny and endearing book made me want to shake his hand or give him a grateful and disembodied hug.

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

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