METERMost of us who spend our time reading books gobble up their verbal content and then set aside or, at best, shelve the container. But these receptacles have their own identity and existence: with their erect spines, their layered paper like skin, and their protective covers, books have bodies and wear clothes, and enjoy adventures or mishaps in their circulation through the world. Overlooking the most epic part of Troilus and ChryseydeChaucer treats the poem as his “little book” and sends it into the future with affectionate paternal care, while in Thackeray vanity fair the heroine begins her career of rebellion by throwing a copy of Samuel Johnson’s unofficial and prescriptive dictionary out the window.
In portable magic, Emma Smith cleverly and artfully studies books as objects, owned by readers not produced by writers. Its title, taken from an essay by Stephen King, emphasizes the mobility of these seemingly inert items and their hidden powers. Like automobiles or metaphors, books transport us to unknown destinations, and there is something sinister about that propulsion. Smith begins with wizards who conjure while consulting spellbooks; she goes on to examine the varieties of magical reading, ranging from the “spiritual transcendence” of Saint Augustine, who was converted by a random reading of the Bible, to the “dark arts” of a “necromantic volume” such as my fightdistributed to every home during the Third Reich like a sinister talisman, the “bibliographical manifestation of Hitlerism.”
In their packaging, the early gospels brought heaven to earth, in celestial gold and silver lettering on majestic purple parchment. Other books Smith examined have been desecrated or, as she cheekily puts it, “visually pimped.” Joe Orton and his mistress Kenneth Halliwell were jailed for replacing illustrations in fancy books with homoerotic pin-ups, though the Islington library that had them prosecuted now displays the defaced copies as art treasures. Elsewhere, Smith locates books with incendiary intent: a paperback murder mystery from apartheid-era South Africa hides a bomb-making manual inside, and a 17th-century Venetian missal encases a boxed pistol with a silk marker that activates its trigger. She better these deadly booby traps than the gently curated shelves of Gwyneth Paltrow, whose interior designer provided her with many blook jobs chosen for the soothing color of her loins.
Etymologically, all the books are analogous to the Bible, since the word “biblion” derives from a Semitic term for papyrus or roll. On his way through the centuries, Smith scoffs at some playful neologisms of that ancient root. Fortune tellers indulge in “bibliomancy” by opening books at random to find prophetic guidance, Orton’s bawdy collages are described as “creative biblioclasm” and the disaster movie Day after tomorrow exhibits an act of “bibliocide” when New York Public Library books are incinerated for fuel during a new ice age. Best of all is Smith’s translation of the academic term incunabula as “biblio-babies”: these 15th-century printed books derive their name from the Latin for diapers or cradle, making them “Gutenberg’s nursery babies.” Closer to the present, mass-marketed books challenge readers to multiply in their non-mechanical ways. “Paperbacks,” declares Smith, “were the baby boomers of book demographics, and Dr. Spock The Baby and Child Care Pocket Book It was one of the first big hits of the new format.”
Smith reads with all his senses alert. He listens to the rustling of pages as they turn, sniffs the bindings like a wine drinker savoring the aroma of a vintage, and deliciously inhales the woody vanilla musk of cheap second-hand bookstores; he knows the recipes for making ink, which in the case of a Norse saga involved boiling the berries of an arctic bush. Indulging in the rings left by coffee cups, he too treasures the sauce splashed on his kitchen copy of Claudia Roden. Medicine: Books satisfy all appetites.
Although Smith defines herself as a “bookish scholar,” she balks at Arcimboldo’s 16th-century portrayal of “a man built from books,” with fluttering pages for hair, ribs made from stacked tomes, and bookmarks. books instead of fingers. The monstrous figure in the painting reminds him that “the book-human relationship is reciprocal: if we are made of books, the books are made of us”. To prove the point, he notices that a small Spanish Bible confiscated from a migrant at the US border is “curved around the contours of a body,” having been stuffed into a pocket for convenience. and company during the long journey to the river. Big.
As we hold a book, we shake it, hug it, or even caress it in our laps: the meeting of minds relaxes into a closer communion, and when you finish portable magic its pages will be smeared with your fingerprints and sprinkled with traces of your DNA. Smith encourages this intimacy by huffing “Ugh!” after a particularly grueling page of argument and thanks to the readers who stay the course. His wise, funny, and endearingly personal book of his made me want to shake his hand or give him a grateful, disembodied hug.