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Reviews of Portable Magic by Emma Smith

Portable Magic

A History of Books and Their Readers

by Emma Smith

Portable Magic by Emma Smith X
Portable Magic by Emma Smith
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  • Published:
    Nov 2022, 352 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Tasneem Pocketwala
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About this Book

Book Summary

A history of one of humankind's most resilient and influential technologies over the past millennium—the book.

Stephen King once said that books are "a uniquely portable magic." Here, Emma Smith takes readers on a literary adventure that spans centuries and circles the globe to uncover the reasons behind our obsession with this captivating object.

From disrupting the Western myth that the Gutenberg Press was the original printing project, to the decorative gift books that radicalized women to join the anti-slavery movement, to paperbacks being weaponized during World War II, to a book made entirely of plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese, Portable Magic explores how, when, and why books became so iconic. It's not just the content within a book that compels; it's the physical material itself, what Smith calls "bookhood": the smell, the feel of the pages, the margins to scribble in, the illustrations on the jacket, its solid heft. Every book is designed to influence our reading experience—to enchant, enrage, delight, and disturb us—and our longstanding love affair with books in turn has had direct, momentous consequences across time.

Revelatory and entertaining in equal measure, Portable Magic will charm and challenge literature lovers of all kinds as it illuminates the transformative power and eternal appeal of the written word.

Introduction:
Magic books

There was once a very learned man in the north-country who knew all the languages under the sun, and who was acquainted with all the mysteries of creation. He had one big book bound in black calf and clasped with iron, and with iron corners, and chained to a table which was made fast to the floor; and when he read out of this book, he unlocked it with an iron key, and none but he read from it, for it contained all the secrets of the spiritual world.

This is the opening to the folktale "The Master and His Pupil," first printed in English at the end of the nineteenth century but circulating long before. Even though you probably haven't read it, it may well seem familiar (that's pretty much the definition of a folktale). And when you read the start of the next paragraph— "Now the master had a pupil who was but a foolish lad"— it is probably clear already what will happen. This is a version of the sorcerer's apprentice tale, and the pupil will take his ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Maintaining a razor-sharp focus on the materiality of the book — more precisely, the "undersung inseparability of book form and book content," which she terms "bookhood" — Smith explores familiar as well as new topics and themes. She brings scholarly vigor to issues around the reading, publication and usage of books and sets them in geographical, temporal and historical contexts. All this is done with a conversational levity that is both beguiling and surprising: I did not expect to be laughing out loud at this book. Smith situates each main idea in a bookish anecdote, then brings in interesting twists and turns of events with journalistic flair. You can almost imagine her speaking to a hushed and rapt audience...continued

Full Review Members Only (586 words).

(Reviewed by Tasneem Pocketwala).

Media Reviews

The Guardian (UK)
Brilliantly written… Joyful… Smith reminds us of the thrills and spills of shabby covers, the illicit delight of writing in margins when you have been told not to and the guilty joy that comes from poring over traces left by someone else. It is these haptic, visceral and even slightly seedy pleasures of 'bookhood' that she brings so brilliantly to life.

The Sunday Times (UK)
Wildly entertaining… Smith deals smartly with serious questions… This fascinating, slyly amusing book carries an undertow of personal affection for the curious, rectangular, multileaved objects with which we're so familiar.

The Telegraph (UK)
Anyone who picked up Smith's excellent This Is Shakespeare will be familiar with the combination of deep scholarship and down-to-earth wit she brings to her subjects, and Portable Magic continues in the same charming vein. Applying the same methods to a much broader topic with similarly engaging effect, Smith proceeds here with enviable lightness of touch, mingling the serious and the silly as she goes... Rather brilliant.

The Times (UK)
A fascinating journey into our relationship with the physical book.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Entertaining… With wit and verve, Smith concludes that a book becomes a book 'in the hands of its readers... a book that is not handled and read is not really a book at all.' Readers should make space on their shelves for this dazzling and provocative study.

Kirkus Reviews
Smith's work is a delight for bibliophiles, historians, and curious readers craving an unconventional piece of nonfiction... The author's trenchant analysis, attention to detail, and conversational tone combine to make a page-turning historical study... A fascinating material history of the book told through a geopolitical lens.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

The Shelfie: From the Early Modern Ages to COVID-19

1700s painted color portrait of Madame de Pompadour (by François Boucher), pictured lounging in voluminous dress with book in lap Perhaps it's a quirk of readers, but it seems almost natural to be drawn to other people's books — whether in images on social media or in someone's home. Books offer a snapshot of who a person is, presenting a quick glimpse of what influences them, what they might think about and what holds lasting meaning for them.

So it isn't surprising when people are mindful of the appearance of their very visible bookshelves. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many businesses shifted work online over Zoom calls, some used their bookcases as their backgrounds. It seemed a neutral, formal-looking choice, but it was also in some instances a way to implicitly suggest erudition.

Colloquially termed "shelfies," personal images of (often ...

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Readalikes

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