cover image Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers

Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers

Emma Smith. Knopf, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4909-5

“All books are magic. All books have agency and power in the real world,” writes Shakespeare scholar Smith (This Is Shakespeare) in this entertaining history. With a focus on “bookhood,” which includes “the impact of touch, smell, and hearing, on the experience of books,” Smith makes a colorful case that a book’s form contains as much “magic” as its content. In a chapter on how a book becomes a classic, she points to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The paperback of Carson’s environmental manifesto made it available to a wide audience—the 40th anniversary edition, published in a “handsome” hardcover Library of America volume, confirmed it as a classic designed to last. A section on the popularity of paperbacks details how they were sent to soldiers during wartime, and a chapter on book burnings points out that the act is “powerfully symbolic and practically almost entirely ineffectual,” plus reveals that through the destruction of unsold inventory, publishers themselves are the largest destroyers of books. With wit and verve, Smith concludes that a book becomes a book “in the hands of its readers... a book that is not handled and read is not really a book at all.” Readers should make space on their shelves for this dazzling and provocative study. (Nov.)