Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers Review – A Shocking Adventure | History books

MMost of us who spend our time reading books swallow their verbal content, then set the container aside or, at best, shelves. But these containers have their own identity and existence: with their upright backs, their paper layered like skin and their protective jackets, books possess body and wear clothing, and they enjoy adventure or suffering misfortune while circulating around the world. Overlooking the epic main part of Troilus and CriseydeChaucer refers to the poem as his “little book” and sends it out into the future with loving parental care while in Thackerays Vanity Fair the heroine begins her rebellious career by throwing a copy of Samuel Johnson’s offensive, prescriptive dictionary out the window.

IN Portable magic, Emma Smith studies witty and ingenious books as objects, possessed by readers not produced by authors. Her title, borrowed from an essay by Stephen King, underscores the mobility of these seemingly inert objects and their occult powers. Like cars or metaphors, books transport us to unknown destinations, and that momentum has something eerie about it. Smith begins with wizards conjuring while consulting magic books; she goes on to explore the variants of magical reading, which range from the “spiritual transcendence” of Saint Augustine, which was converted by a random review of the Bible, to the “dark arts” of a “necromantic volume” such as my struggledistributed to all households during the Third Reich as an eerie talisman, the “bibliographical manifestation of Hitlerism”.

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

In their wrapping, early gospels brought heaven down to earth, written in heavenly gold and silver on royal purple parchment. Other books that Smith has examined have been scolded or, as she rudely puts it, “visually pimped.” Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were imprisoned for replacing illustrations in elegant books with homoerotic pinups, though the Islington Library, which had them prosecuted, now shows the broken copies as artistic treasures. Elsewhere, Smith finds books with an arousing intent: A paperback murder mystery from the apartheid-era South Africa elicits a manual for making bombs inside, and a 17th-century Venetian missile encloses a pistol in a box with a silk bookmark activating its trigger. . Better these deadly booby traps than Gwyneth Paltrow’s bland curated shelves, whose interior designer provided her with a bunch of “blooks” selected because of the soothing color of their spines.

Etymologically, all books are analogous to the Bible, as the word “biblion” is derived from a Semitic term for papyrus or scroll. On his way through the centuries, Smith teases some playful neologisms out of the age-old root. Fortune-tellers indulge in “bibliomancy” by opening books at random to find prophetic guidance, Orton’s obscene collages are described as a “creative biblioclasm,” and the disaster film The day after tomorrow exhibits an act of “bibliocide” when books in the New York Public Library are burned for fuel during a new ice age. Best of all, Smith’s translation of the scientific term incunabula as “biblio babies”: These 15th-century printed books derive their name from Latin for wrap or cradle, making them “infants of Gutenberg’s nursery.” Closer 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’s demographic, and Dr. Spocks The wallet on baby and childcare was one of the first major successes of the new format. ”

Smith reads with all his senses on guard. She listens to pages rattling as they are flipped, sniffs bindings like a wine-biter enjoying the bouquet of a vintage, and deliciously inhales the woody vanilla musk from cheap thrift bookstores; she knows the recipes for making ink, which in a Nordic saga was about boiling berries from an Arctic bush. She is devoted to the rings after coffee mugs, and she also appreciates the sprayed sauce on her kitchen copy by Claudia Rodens With: books cater to any appetite.

Although Smith defines herself as a “bookish academic,” she refuses Arcimboldo’s 16th-century portrait of “a man constructed of books,” with fluttering 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 consist of books, books consist of us”. To prove the point, she notes that a small Spanish-language bible confiscated from a migrant at the U.S. border is “curved around the contours of a body” after being stuffed in a pocket for comfort and camaraderie during the long hiking north to the Rio Grande.

When we hold a book, we tighten or embrace it or even nurture it on our lap: the meeting between the minds relaxes into a closer community, and when you are done Portable magic its sides will be seen with your fingerprints and dusted by traces of your DNA. Smith encourages this intimacy by blowing “Puha!” after an extremely strenuous page with argumentation and thanks to readers who keep the course. Her clever, funny, endearing personal book made me want to shake her hand or give her a grateful, disembodied hug.

Portable Magic: A story about books and their readers by Emma Smith is published by Allen Lane (£ 20). To support Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery costs may apply

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