Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith - review by Sarah Watling

Sarah Watling

Speaking Volumes

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers


Allen Lane 352pp £20

You, reader of Literary Review, should be interested in Portable Magic. It is a book about books and you, the evidence suggests, are a consumer of literature about literature. But there already I’ve blurred a boundary its author, Emma Smith, establishes early on. When people talk about the magic of books, what they are usually talking about is the transporting promise of their contents. Smith, by contrast, is interested in books as objects and the meanings residing within form – in the ‘bookhood’ of books.

It’s particularly a book for you if you’re someone, like me, who looked at your shelves when the lockdown struck and realised that you’d been busily furnishing your ideal bunker for years without having any idea that you were doing it. I like having the old familiars about me: the tatty, musty pages of my second-hand hauls; the gentle wreckage of repeated reads; cloth-bound hardcovers and deckled edges; modern paperbacks with striking covers. I keep them for their thingness – their bookhood – as well as for their contents.

Smith gets all this. She is interested in our ‘long love affair with the book’. As she points out, we all register the

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