Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers

  • By Emma Smith
  • Knopf
  • 352 pp.
  • Reviewed by Molly McGinnis
  • January 4, 2023

An elegant look at literature’s transformative power.

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers

That some objects are elevated above others and have the power to change us is an old idea — older, even, than the one object whose magic (both fearful and beautiful) remains intact today: books. Possessed dolls and protective amulets just don’t have the same mainstream pull they once did, and even technology — whose breadth and depth of data seems to approach the supernatural — doesn’t inspire the intense reactions that books do.

In an age of search engines and personalized algorithms, politicians are still banning books and citizens still starting secret book clubs. If ever there were a time to pause and consider the history of literature, it is now, and Emma Smith’s Portable Magic offers a strong introduction.

Smith begins her story of stories with a dip into “The Master and His Pupil,” a folktale about the dangers of a book falling into the wrong hands. While neither the master nor the pupil is described in detail, the book discovered by the ignorant student has a vivid physicality. Smith takes care throughout Portable Magic to strike a note often heard in creative-writing workshops: Form is content. Don’t judge a book by its cover, she suggests, but don’t discount the power that cover might wield, either.

Her interest in materiality is a recurring theme. Chapter one reviews Gutenberg and his printing press, while adding some lesser-known details — for example, that one of its first products was an anti-Turkey pamphlet called “A Warning to Christendom against the Turks.” The beginning of large-scale printed materials was marked by the Gutenberg Bible, yes, but it was also enmeshed in geopolitics, ideological power struggles, and East-West conflict.

Smith touches upon other similarly influential books and forms — particularly memorable is the chapter that discusses the first paperback novels, mass-produced to “arm the mind and spirit of the American people” during the Second World War. They were accessible; one could read them in a foxhole or store them on nightstands. Later, she introduces us to the idea of “talismanic” or protective books, including the steel-covered Bibles issued to soldiers in World War I:

“These hedged their protective bets by combining the superstitious or religious belief in the Bible as a metaphorical shield with the practical addition of a bulletproof cover.”

Along with their protective power, books were (and are) signifiers of individuality: from the meticulously curated bookshelf in noblewoman Lady Anne Clifford’s portraits, to photographs of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses, to “shelfies” (photos of our bookshelves that either purposely or inadvertently reveal our lives and minds), readers’ proximity to certain books has been its own opportunity for analysis.

But just as some may hope the wisdom of specific books might rub off on them via physical closeness, others judge various books to be contagions. Which is where the censors come in. Smith tackles censorship in a discussion of authors from D.H. Lawrence to Jeanine Cummins. It’s her deft handling of complex concepts here and elsewhere that makes Smith’s book such a success. She is willing to take risks as she explores sensitive topics from multiple angles and eras.

In fact, range itself is one of Portable Magic’s great ambitions; we jump not only between centuries and cultures, but from the literary world to the real world and back again. Of course, this boundary between the two worlds is blurrier than we think. Indeed, as avid readers will attest, it’s largely a mirage.

Smith covers an impressive amount of territory, but it is not disorienting. With logic and skill, she guides us through 300-plus pages that prove the case she proposes right at the beginning:

“What’s superficially evident in the depiction and understanding of books of spells is actually true of all books. All books are magic. All books have agency and power in the real world, the power to summon demons and to dispatch them.”

Her own is no exception.

Molly McGinnis’ writing has been featured in Guernica, CQ Researcher, Poet Lore, Hobart, and elsewhere. She lives in Washington, DC.

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