Bookhood: On Emma Smith’s “Portable Magic”

November 15, 2022   •   By Daniel Blank

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers

Emma Smith

THE OLD STORY is a familiar one. A child encounters a large, mysterious book in the possession of their teacher, a sorcerer or scholar to whom they are apprenticed. While the teacher is absent, the child opens the book and reads from it, unwittingly summoning a demonic figure. The teacher returns just in time to reverse the spell, saving the child from eternal damnation and returning the hellish creature to its safe confinement within the pages of the book.

This is a version of the widespread folktale known as “The Master and the Pupil” with which Emma Smith’s Portable Magic, an enthralling, timely, and spirited tour through the history of the book, begins. In Smith’s account, the words on the page are not the only source of meaning; it is drawn also, she argues, from the form of the book itself, which is inextricable from its contents. That the shadowy tome in “The Master and the Pupil” is “bound in black calf and clasped with iron […] and chained to a table” is an important signifier of its inward substance. Even outside the boundaries of allegory, our physical encounter with a book — “the feel of it in our hands, the rustle of its pages, the smell of its binding” — conditions our experience of it. Put simply: “Form matters.”

Taken together, form and content comprise a volume’s “bookhood,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the state or condition of being a book.” This is a term to which Smith returns frequently, its appeal stemming from how “it encourages us to think about books from the perspective of the book itself.” The vitality of the book is a long-standing notion: for instance, in his 1644 defense of press freedom, Areopagitica, John Milton wrote that books “contain a potency of life in them.” “That life,” Smith tells us, “is located in their physical form as much as in their metaphysical content.” The question of whether books have lives of their own, and whether those lives resemble those of their human counterparts, is one that Portable Magic encourages us to ask.

Smith’s love of reading comes across throughout Portable Magic, but this is not an idealized account, nor does she seek to romanticize the role of the book in history. “Books are wonderful, challenging, transporting,” Smith writes, “but sometimes also sickening, disturbing, enraging.” As in “The Master and the Pupil,” books are objects that carry tremendous power, power that can be used “to misinform and manipulate as well as to comfort and educate.” They are also objects characterized by remarkable endurance in the face of attempts to censor them, destroy them, or render their technology outdated (even e-readers, Smith notes, have “closely […] shadowed the codex form” and mimicked “the familiar forms of the Western book”).

Although Portable Magic celebrates books, it does not praise them unconditionally; rather, it explores their complexities and their sometimes problematic legacies. The resulting account not only testifies to the book’s enduring prominence but also provides valuable context for current debates about the power of certain books — debates that, Portable Magic shows, are almost as old as books themselves.

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Across 16 dynamic chapters, Portable Magic shows us that books have been a near-constant presence in our lives over the course of the past millennium. For instance, Smith discusses a 1646 three-panel portrait, attributed to Jan van Belcamp, of the 17th-century English noblewoman Lady Anne Clifford, a series that contains 50 books that were “specifically curated for the painting,” and which allowed her to create “the picture of herself that [she] wanted to project.” Although fashioning one’s own persona through books might sound like a modern phenomenon — perhaps especially to those of us with carefully arranged Zoom backgrounds — it in fact has a long history, and Smith is quick to draw the connection between Lady Clifford’s literary preoccupations and our own: “These prominently identifiable books chosen for her painting clearly create something we might call a biblio-biography or, more colloquially, a shelfie.” Smith traces the iconographic template for women reading back even further to the 12th century, moving seamlessly, effortlessly, between eras and locations. This range represents one of Portable Magic’s greatest strengths. Smith weaves together a rich tapestry of bibliographic history through seemingly disparate examples and stories. The effect can be surprising, even at times jarring, but it never feels forced. It is a powerful reminder that much of our own literary culture, novel though it may seem, did not arise within a vacuum but rather derives from the rich history of books themselves.

Another example is taken from the 20th century: Marilyn Monroe, who, Smith observes, is depicted reading in “a surprising number of photographic shoots.” In one image, Monroe reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; in another, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But Smith’s primary concern is a 1955 photo in which Monroe is engrossed in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Smith provides a formidable rejoinder to the “sexist assumption” that Monroe was holding the book merely “as a prop.” She illuminates not only Monroe’s “astute understanding of books and their social significations” but also the brilliance of her choices. The Hollywood star holding a copy of the “challenging modernist work” is not a “visual paradox”; rather, it “bring[s] together two symbols of sexuality, transgression and American modernity.” Monroe and her copy of Ulysses have much more in common than commentators have recognized: “Like her, this specific hardback is a symbol of sexual and intellectual liberation.”

The close association between books and people develops throughout Portable Magic. To some degree, this follows logically from our tendency to anthropomorphize books: as Smith notes, we assign them “human attributes, including heads and shoulders and spines and backs and jackets and signatures.” Books are with us throughout our lives: for instance, in a rather miraculous survival, a copy of the 1611 King James Bible that belonged to John Milton contains a handwritten note recording the exact time of the author’s own birth; and Smith highlights several instances in which books have been buried with their authors — most notably in the case of one John Underwood, an 18th-century Englishman who was reportedly interred with (among other books) a copy of “Bentley’s Horace under his Arse.” Books follow us, sometimes quite literally, from cradle to grave.

Not all attempts to unite humans and books are so amusing, however. An extreme example of that connection appears in the form of “anthropodermic bindings” — books that have been bound in human skin. At first pass, these books might sound like mere objects of curiosity or, as Smith suggests, something out of H. P. Lovecraft. But she rightly reminds us that these bindings are human remains — something certain repositories have been slow to acknowledge — and that they bear witness to the disparate power relations that led to the books’ creation. “The human subjects whose skin has been appropriated for book purposes,” Smith observes, “are all vulnerable or disempowered.” It is a sobering reminder of how extreme, and how troubling, the relationship between books and humans can be.

At the opposite end of the power relations spectrum is Harry Elkins Widener, scion of a wealthy Philadelphia family who had a passion for book collecting, and whose financial means gave him significant ability to pursue it. Widener met his tragic end at the age of 27, as he was returning home on the Titanic from a book-buying spree in London. According to a report, Widener told his mother as the ship was sinking that he was placing his 1598 edition of Francis Bacon’s Essaies in his pocket, declaring, “[L]ittle ‘Bacon’ goes with me.” This anecdote is famous within the annals of bibliophilia, not least because it bears some resemblance to the story of the poet Percy Shelley, whose “drowned body was identified after his boat capsized […] by the copy of Keats’s Lamia in his pocket.” Shelley’s Keats, like Widener’s Bacon, sank along with their owners: a shared fate of both humans and their books.

The difference, however, is that while the Lamia reemerged from the sea, the Essaies never did. It was lost forever, along with a rare 1542 tract entitled Heavy News of a Horrible Earthquake Which Was in the City of Scarbaria in This Present Year. Yet, as Smith points out, replacement copies of both books were later acquired by the Widener Library, which Harry’s mother Eleanor established in her son’s memory at his alma mater, Harvard University. “[B]ooks, unlike people, are usually replaceable,” Smith writes. “[U]nlike Harry Widener and the other 1,495 victims of the Titanic, his 1542 earthquake pamphlet lost at sea was not irreplaceable.”

In a sense, Widener’s story highlights one of the central paradoxes of print culture, elucidated in Portable Magic. “Even the most mass-market book takes on an individual shape and character through use,” Smith writes. Using the example of copies of the Nuevo testamento confiscated at the US-Mexico border, she notes their differing signs of wear, use, and annotation: “[E]ven these migrants’ identical Spanish-language Bibles are each, preciously, one of a kind.” “[B]ooks become unique to their reader,” she observes in a later chapter. Yet even as they take on individuality and character, even as we imagine them as passengers at sea or travelers across borders, books are not people — no matter how much we anthropomorphize them.

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It is against the backdrop of uncertainty, catastrophe, or despair that comparisons between people and books seem to be most pronounced. Smith quotes Ray Bradbury’s reflection on Nazi book burnings, that “when Hitler burned a book,” he commented after the publication of his 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, “I felt it as keenly […] as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.” This quotation appears amid Smith’s discussion of the Nazi bonfires of May 1933. Bradbury’s comparison is juxtaposed with the better-known quotation from Heinrich Heine, the 19th-century German Jewish writer whose works were burned in 1933, and whose character in an 1820s play declares: “Where men burn books, / They will burn people also in the end.” While Smith does not shy away from the horrors of Nazi Germany, she is skeptical of the link between “bibliocide” and “genocide.” “Heine’s quotation,” she says, “creates a perverse, unethical equation that anthropomorphizes the book,” while simultaneously overlooking the “many other precedent causes or contexts for the Holocaust.” Bradbury likewise creates a “false equivalence” in claiming that humans and books “are one in the same flesh.” Smith ends the chapter with her firmest disavowal of this comparison: “In the end, books are not people, and it is morally repugnant to bracket their destruction together in the same breath.”

One might reasonably object that Nazi efforts to burn books by Jews and other marginalized members of society were not incidental to their efforts to destroy those people. The Nazis’ aim was not only the mass murder of the Jewish people; it was also the extinction of every trace of Jewish culture. It was precisely because those books contained, to borrow Milton’s phrase, a “potency of life” that Hitler felt the need to destroy them. What Smith seems to overlook here is that the notion of a book’s life is, at least in this context, a metaphor to express the relationship between books and their creators. Certainly, to claim that burning a book is as bad as murdering a person would be repugnant, but we should remember that, for the Nazis and other genocidal regimes, burning books is an integral part of the effort to eradicate a people and their culture. It is a powerful reminder that books are physical manifestations of their authors’ ideas that also become, as Smith so persuasively argues throughout this book, part of their readers’ lives.

The destruction of books for ideological purposes seldom achieves its ostensible goal, since the print technology that enables mass reproduction usually thwarts those efforts. “Book-burning,” Smith argues, “is powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual.” This has long been the case: the burning of works by Martin Luther in 1521, for instance, was unable to quash the dissemination of his teachings, largely because the reproducibility of the printed book renders nearly impossible such wholesale suppression. I do wonder, however, whether we can understand a book burning as a “theatrical activity designed to communicate to an audience as much as, or more than, to destroy specific titles.” The example of Nazi Germany gives me pause: had they succeeded in the war, I suspect the total elimination of specific titles would have been the goal. The book burnings of 1933 may have been in part “ideological theatre,” but they were also a prelude to a much larger project of cultural destruction.

Still, as Smith notes in a later chapter on censorship, eliminating books from circulation completely is merely “the fantasy of censors themselves.” “That books could be cancelled as if they had never existed,” she writes, “is barely possible in the era of print.” This portion of Portable Magic feels particularly relevant, as school districts across the United States have been on a remarkable book-banning spree over the past year or so, mainly targeting titles that engage with race or LGBTQ+ topics. These efforts, principally motivated by conservative politicians and policy groups, are — like many of the examples in Portable Magic — about more than just restricting books from classrooms and school libraries. But the notion that a book ban could suppress these texts completely is as absurd as it is counterproductive to the right-wing agenda: “[T]he inadvertent consequence of censorship,” Smith demonstrates, is that “it draws attention to the censored material.”

This leads us to a fundamental truism of book history, one that we see evidenced throughout Portable Magic: controversy often results in increased sales. An obscenity charge involving D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover fueled a sharp spike in sales once the ban was lifted; the debates surrounding Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring were “intrinsic to its success,” Smith claims in a fascinating chapter on that bestselling book. Sometimes it simply seems to be a matter of perspective: the 17th-century Anglican clergyman Thomas James, the first librarian of the Bodleian Library, viewed the Catholic Church’s long-running Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“Index of Prohibited Books”) and its accompanying Index Expurgatorius as “an invaluable reference work of books” that were worthy of adding to his library’s collection. There are current examples of this trend as well: a Tennessee school board’s decision in January to ban Art Spiegelman’s Maus from the curriculum caused the book to skyrocket to the top of the bestseller lists.

But if freedom of the press is an essential democratic ideal, then what do we do with (or better yet, how do we handle) books that we consider to be dangerous? To address this problem, Smith turns her attention to Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the inevitable epicenter of any such discussion. Part of the issue is that this book’s significance to the Nazi cause far exceeds the typescript letters printed on the page. Its “mass distribution” in Nazi Germany signifies “national complicity,” Smith writes — “the book itself became the symbol of that ideology rather than merely its carrier, a pragmatic and even talismanic object as much as a collection of words.” Mein Kampf is not unique as a printed object that was “weaponized” (a word that occurs a few times in Portable Magic): even one of the earliest items produced by Gutenberg’s press was a 1454 anti-Turkish pamphlet, in what Smith identifies as a first step in making “[p]rinting […] a tool of empire.” But Mein Kampf feels especially pressing because it was out of print until the recent expiration of its copyright in 2016. The two editions that were “immediately planned for publication in 2017” presented a series of quandaries: How should the text be presented, if at all? Should it be housed in libraries? And where should royalties go? “The question of what to do with this book […] is still a live one,” Smith notes.

Nor can we always (or perhaps ever) be absolutely certain of a book’s legacy upon its publication. In the penultimate chapter of Portable Magic, Smith discusses John Eliot’s Native Bible (sometimes referred to as the “Indian Bible”), printed in colonial Massachusetts between 1661 and 1663, which translated the Christian Bible into Wôpanâak. Smith suggests that the Bible was “as much a colonial propaganda curio […] as it was a tool of his missionary work with Native speakers,” and that it was ultimately part of a larger project “to eradicate Algonquin culture by transforming it into Anglo-American culture.” But the book itself is less straightforward: “[V]ital to the entire project were Native labour and linguistic competence,” Smith observes. “However much their contribution has been occluded and erased from the printed book, Native translators and artisans were so central to the production of the Bible that it is a cultural object neither wholly colonial nor wholly indigenous.”

Most strikingly, in recent years Eliot’s Bible, as much as it may have been a tool for the destruction of Algonquin culture at the time, has now become an indispensable tool for the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project — or, as Smith puts it, “a resource for the recuperation of the culture that it sought to destroy.” That may not offer vindication, but it does compel us to reflect on the long lifespan of a physical book — and the many uses to which its power may be put along the way.

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Portable Magic brims with insights, causing its reader to feel as though it might at any moment burst forth from its binding. Yet it wears its considerable learning lightly. It contains plenty of secrets, but it shares them willingly, and thus its magic is of a much different sort than the hefty tome described in “The Master and the Pupil.” At one point, Smith remarks that a particular volume “exudes approachability and unpretentiousness”; the same might be said about her own project. Portable Magic is a fine testament to the bibliographic history it discusses, and a remarkable reminder of how books bear witness to their own histories — as well as, in various senses, those of their readers.

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Daniel Blank writes about Shakespeare and early modern drama. His first book, Shakespeare and University Drama in Early Modern England, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is an assistant professor at Durham University.