Do you like to read or show off your library? This fascinating book is essential


Emma Smith’s enchanting book about books borrows its title from Stephen King, who describes them as “one-of-a-kind portable magic.”

Smith is Professor of Shakespearian Studies at Hertford College in Oxford, a bookish setting if there ever was one, and in portable magic it celebrates not only the history and evolution of books, but also their function and totemic status as the manifestation of ideas in physical form – their true ‘bookhood’.

The usual suspects are all here – 7th century BC Chinese printers, Gutenberg and his Bibles, publishing magnates and authors of everything from Alexandrian scrolls to coal-fired paperbacks. But the foreground is the book itself, and Smith’s infectious fascination with the material, decorative, and talismanic aspects of wrapping and spreading the printed word. We learn that not only did the 1455 edition of the Gutenberg Bible have a remarkable 1282 pages, but it took two years of work by six pressmen to produce about 170 copies in total. Barely a bestseller, despite its storied place in publishing history, and it’s no surprise that Gutenberg fell victim to its creditors and went bankrupt 10 years later.

F. Scott Fitzgerald went to his grave believing The Great Gatsby was a failure.Credit:Getty Images

portable magic sparkles with gems of anecdotes that often hide deeper truths about the evolution of reading and publishing. For example, in 1940, the year of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death, his royalty check for Gatsby the magnificent amounted to a disappointing $13. It was his inclusion in the works selected by the Council for Books in Wartime, a committee of publishers, librarians and literary luminaries, for distribution to all United States servicemen during World War II, that immortalized the work of Fitzgerald with an initial print run six times that of its publisher. Scribner’s output in the years after his 1925 debut. Fitzgerald went to his grave believing his masterpiece was a failure, a failure that has sold millions since the war, but the Smith’s exploration goes far beyond the whims of fate that make or break the reputations of writers and publishers.

Yes, budding authors around the world take solace in the tortured soul-searching of the 12 publishers who rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1996, but Smith adds a twist to this story when she notes that JK Rowling joins Martin Luther, Thomas Hardy and DH Lawrence on the long list of authors whose works have been publicly cremated.

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portable magic by Emma Smith

His chapter on the burning of books (edited May 10, 1933, marking the most notorious example of this practice in Nazi Germany) points out that “the burning of books for ideological reasons is almost as old as the form of the book itself”, while noting that these conflagrations are “less about censorship and more about political theater”, and mainly used as a form of waste management, even as self-immolation by hysterical or depressed authors of the fuel.

But it is the book as a physical thing, rather than its contents, that is the hero of Smith’s tale, and although she acknowledges that the advent of the printing press “is to book production what opposable thumbs are to the evolution of primates”, the book itself – as status symbol, theater prop or work of art – is what its own book is all about.

We’ve all noticed that COVID-19, and its consequent explosion of online meetings and home office decorating, has brought with it a new form of self-expression. Smith recounts the mortifying downfalls lurking in this indulgence, as the Bookcase Credibility Twitter account hilariously recounts, or “What you say isn’t as important as the library behind you.”


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