Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers

Emma Smith

Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers
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Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers

Emma Smith

Most of what we say about books is really about their contents: the rosy nostalgic glow for childhood reading, the lifetime companionship of a much-loved novel. But books are things as well as words, objects in our lives as well as worlds in our heads. And just as we crack their spines, loosen their leaves and write in their margins, so they disrupt and disorder us in turn. All books are, as Stephen King put it, ‘a uniquely portable magic’. In this thrilling new history, Emma Smith shows us why.


Portable Magic unfurls an exciting, iconoclastic and ambitious new story of the book in human hands, exploring when, why and how it acquired its particular hold over humankind. Gathering together a millennium’s worth of pivotal encounters with volumes big and small, Smith compellingly argues that, as much as their contents, it is books' physical form - their ‘bookhood’ - that lends them their distinctive and sometimes dangerous magic.

From the Diamond Sutra to Jilly Cooper’s Riders, to a book made of wrapped slices of cheese, Smith uncovers how this composite artisanal object has, for centuries, embodied and extended relationships between readers, nations, ideologies and cultures, in significant and unpredictable ways. She celebrates the rise of the mass-market paperback, and dismantles the myth that print began with Gutenberg; she reveals how our reading habits have been shaped by American soldiers, and proposes a new definition of a ‘classic’.

Ultimately, Smith illuminates the ways in which our relationship with the written word is more reciprocal - and more turbulent - than we tend to imagine: for better or worse, books do not simply reflect humankind, but have also defined who we are, turning us into the readers they would like to have.

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