Portable Magic

David Jeffrey is a senior lecturer at Three Counties Medical School, University of Worcester

Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford, has written a terrific manual for bibliophiles. Sharing her love for the physical form of books in her introduction, she moves to the history of printing, beginning with Johann Gutenberg in 1455. Further chapters explain how portable Armed Services Editions (distributed to the forces during the war) popularised the paperback, books became fashionable Christmas gifts, and during the 20’s and 30’s book tokens addressed our anxiety of giving books as gifts.

The global pandemic, with its consequent online meetings, stirred interest in the bookcases in the background, described as a ‘shelfie’. Eagle-eyed viewers spotted books placed upside down, arranged by colour, and in one case, multiple books authored by the speaker. Moving on to discuss what makes a classic, Smith traces the evolution of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, from minor polemic, to bestseller, to masterpiece.

General practitioners may be reassured that bibliomaniacs, as yet, do not present for therapeutic intervention.

For bibliophiles, the chapter on bibliomania, or book collecting for show, not for reading, is fascinating. The Western enjoyment of tsundoku, a Japanese term describing accumulating unread books struck a chord, when I reflect on the pile of books at my bedside. General practitioners may be reassured that bibliomaniacs, as yet, do not present for therapeutic intervention.

Further chapters discuss religion and books, the history of burning books, a strategy which has proved unsuccessful in suppressing ideas. Damaging library books, book censoring and the grim practice of using human skin to bind books are topics covered.

Portable Magic argues for two kinds of relationship in our love affair with books. The connection of book form and content and the other, the reciprocity of books and their readers that leave both parties changed. Books are interactive objects. A book that is not handled or read, Smith suggests, is not really a book at all.

Featured book: Emma Smith, Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers, Allen Lane London 2022 pp344 (£20)

Featured Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

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