More Than Mere Words

The strange allure of the printed page

Byron Barrett/Flickr
Byron Barrett/Flickr

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith; Knopf, 352 pp., $28

Long after details of plot, character, and setting have vanished from memory, the sensual traces of a book’s paper, typeface, and binding linger. The Odyssey has been translated into English dozens of times, but a distinctive heft and aroma continue to set each edition apart. Insisting that “our reading is always conditioned by our consciousness of the book itself and its inalienable bookhood,” Emma Smith wants us to focus on the materiality of those packages of ink squiggles that inform, amuse, annoy, and inspire us. A professor at Oxford University who specializes in Shakespeare, Smith contends that “books as objects convey meanings in excess of their verbal content.” Present only as pixels, digital editions possess minimal bookhood.

Despite its subtitle, Portable Magic is not really “A History of Books,” a chronological account of the evolution of codex quiddity. Instead, after dismissing the myth that Johannes Gutenberg invented printing, it proceeds topically, with chapters packed with pungent anecdotes about gift books, bibliophiles, vandals, book burnings, fetish tomes, books bound in human skin, and other matters pertinent to the matter at—and in—hand. Entire books have been published about each topic.

Smith notes that The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scroll, was printed in the year 868 and that the oldest datable book, written in Chinese by a Korean Buddhist monk, is Jikji, printed in 1377. Gutenberg produced his famous Bible in 1455, one year after printing an anti-Turkish pamphlet and two years after the fall of Constantinople. Smith contends that Gutenberg’s Bible became a weapon in contemporary religious geopolitics. In the war against Islam and the conquest of paganism, various editions of the Holy Book, carried by missionaries, teachers, and soldiers, would become instruments of Christian colonialism. Nineteenth-century collectors fetishized Gutenberg Bibles—surviving copies of which now sell for more than $1 million each—as trophies of Western triumphalism.

Until the expansion of literacy and the mass production of books, printed matter was an impractical and expensive gift. Diamonds might be a girl’s best friend, but these days, Smith writes, books are “the defining gifts of the modern era.” Nevertheless, a contemporary survey found that books were only the fifth most common offering, after candy, money, something homemade, and makeup. Since it is, as they say, the thought that counts, many gift books are valued for the fact that they were given and remain unread. They do not transcend their reality as corporeal commodities.

In the Covid era, books have been seen conspicuously in the background of many online conversations, and Smith offers some observations about what she calls “shelfies,” the positioning of books behind a speaker in order to send a message. I’ve read Hegel and you haven’t? Buy my latest published volume? I cook delicacies from Peruvian cookbooks? Smith discusses the placement of books in François Boucher’s portraits of Madame de Pompadour to suggest that Louis XV’s mistress was a sophisticated woman with cultivated taste. They anticipate Eve Arnold’s photograph of Marilyn Monroe immersed in a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Smith interprets the image as a celebration of both voluptuousness and intellect. She notes that Monroe is holding the 1934 American edition of the novel, published after its censorship had been defeated in court—reinforcing the image of Monroe as an icon of liberation. That she is apparently reading the final pages of the book, Molly Bloom’s libidinous soliloquy, makes her seem like a champion of “women’s autonomous desires and pleasures.”

A chapter that begins with the sinking of the Titanic is a meditation on bibliophilia, the sometimes pathological desire to accumulate books, but not necessarily to read them. Although they were busy acquiring large fortunes, many of the robber barons of the Gilded Age, including J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry E. Huntington, and Henry C. Folger, also assembled vast libraries of recondite titles. The namesake of Harvard’s immense Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, too, used his great wealth to collect books, and it was following a buying spree in England that he took passage on the Titanic. Along with 1,495 others, Widener was lost at sea, and so was the 1598 copy of Francis Bacon’s Essayes that he had acquired in London. Smith notes that, however rare and expensive, most of Widener’s library was replaceable. This has not always been the case. If the Cotton Nero A.x. manuscript—the only copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—had not resurfaced in the 19th century, more than four centuries after the poem’s composition, a major gap would have been left in medieval English literature.

In her discussion of book burning and book banning, Smith quotes Heinrich Heine’s prophetic precept: “Where men burn books, / They will burn people also in the end.” The Nazis did both, but when, on May 10, 1933, about 90,000 volumes were destroyed, most of these, Smith writes, were mass-produced items by Heine, Einstein, Freud, Marx, Kafka, and others. Few irreplaceable volumes were tossed into the pyres. Moreover, censorship has been known to whet the appetite for forbidden fruit. It can often boost sales. Only days after a Tennessee school board banned Art Spiegelman’s graphic novels Maus I and Maus II, sales increased by 50 percent. And yet, attempts to remove or destroy books are, Smith argues, “almost entirely ineffectual,” since books are reproducible. Should we be circumspect, Smith seems to ask, about Heine’s prophecy? “In the end,” she writes, “books are not people, and it is morally repugnant to bracket their destruction together in the same breath.” Yet those who do not or cannot read the humanizing works of the great thinkers are surely more reckless with the lives of human beings.

Smith is more bothered by the punishment than the crime that sent Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell to prison for six months. Until caught in 1962, the two defaced books in London’s Islington Library with their own cover designs and texts and slipped them back into circulation. (They affixed a pair of cats to a copy of an Agatha Christie novel; a biography of John Betjeman saw the body of the English poet covered in surreal tattoos.) Their caper was perhaps not as harmful as the theft or trashing of rare books, but it was vandalism in the eyes of the public library’s irate patrons. While she revels in the dazzling variety of physical objects we can call books, Smith also cautions against “a curious overinvestment in the book as a sacred object.” Her own breezy book is meant not to be collected but to be read.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Steven G. Kellman’s books include Rambling Prose, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, and The Translingual Imagination.


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