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Review: 'Portable Magic' is a delightful history of books and readers

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Where does a text exist? A book seems like the obvious answer, but texts can be orally transmitted, etched onto banana leaves, or downloaded from cyberspace and read on a screen. Yet whereas a text is metaphysical, books are decidedly physical (leaving aside, for now, e-books and audiobooks), and Oxford professor Emma Smith explores books as material objects in "Portable Magic," a book for people who love books.

Lifting her title from Stephen King, who in "On Writing" wrote that books are "a uniquely portable magic," Smith accordingly begins her delightful introduction with the fable of the Sorcerer and the Apprentice, retold many times but most indelibly in Disney's "Fantasia." Books, the fable tells us, contain power. If not handled by a properly trained scholar, they can unleash not only danger but evil — think "Mein Kampf," to which Smith devotes a chapter. Yet she's most interested in the form of books, not their content.

Books are symbols, that is, and Smith initially stumbles with her chapter on Gutenberg's Bible, debunking the "Western myth" of it symbolizing innovation in printing, as the process previously existed in China and elsewhere. But no one seriously thinks "print is a European invention," as she claims, just that books are. Smith's weakest passages are such rote, post-colonial critiques, which she delivers perfunctorily, as if obliged.

Previous to Gutenberg, of course, there were scrolls, which is how the books of the Bible were originally kept. The first codex, Smith tells us, was able to collect these scrolls of the Bible into one book, allowing the reader to flip pages, easily compare earlier or later parts of a text, keep our place with a mark, and do other activities we now take for granted. In other words, as Smith clarifies, books "are vital exemplars of a resilient technology that has barely changed over more than a millennium but that has changed us, our habits, and our culture."

Chapter by chapter, Smith offers case studies to promote theories about how books as objects convey meaning. For instance, a book's presentation determines how it's read. Large and heavy leather-bound books with elaborate designs and an iron latch are treated as sacred objects, even guarded behind lock and key, whereas mass-market paperbacks are flippantly left in little free libraries for the next reader.

Revealingly, books are burned not to eradicate their content but as symbolic gestures of political theater. It's not the destruction itself that bothers us, but the reasons behind it; no one complains when publishers pulp remaindered books by the thousands, but the Nazi book burnings of 1933 epitomize anti-intellectual barbarism.

More recently, and stupidly, J.K. Rowling's books are burned by the religious far-right for their promotion of pagan witchcraft, and by the fanatic far-left enraged at the author's professed belief in biology.

Books not only signify ideology but also serve as accessory. With "shelfies," the Zoom era allowed us to present our personalities by the books we have as a backdrop, just as Marilyn Monroe declared she was an intellectual by posing with James Joyce's "Ulysses."

With such examples, Smith shows that though we read books, we do many other things with them, too. Ultimately, she argues convincingly, a book is never just a book. And perhaps that's why despite a decade of premature obituaries, books are alive as ever.

Randy Rosenthal teaches writing for Harvard University.

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