When you walk into a bookstore or library, what is your first interaction with a book? I generally scan the covers, letting my eyes linger on titles, images, or authors who pique my interest. I pick up those that call to me and take a longer look while assessing the heft and feel of the volume. If still intrigued, I will read a jacket blurb or two, and take in the look of the cover page and the typeface. I might thumb through to a chapter that seems of interest and read several paragraphs or even pages.
When I reflect on the general idea of a book, however, it is often the content that comes to mind.
That’s because we tend to “understand our engagement with books in emotional or cognitive terms, rather than in tactile or sensory ones,” notes English writer and scholar Emma Smith. Content is what we often emphasize, forgetting about the “feel of it in our hands, the rustle of its pages, the smell of its binding.”
But if you think about the books that have been important to you, it may well be that their content is inseparable from the form in which you encountered them.
Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (2022) by Emma Smith, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, is a delightfully written and thought-provoking work on the history of books as books. Smith wants us to consider the “bookhood” of books — a “nineteenth century coinage on the model of more familiar forms such as ‘childhood’ or ‘brotherhood’ … Bookhood includes the impact of touch, smell, and hearing on the experience of books.” Portable Magic was one of those books that I picked up and considered while browsing at The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore on our recent trip to Paris, having been directed there by dear friend Janet Hulstrand. And I’m very glad I did.
Smith begins by busting western myths about the beginning of modern printing and the Gutenberg Bible. Printing was known before that time, Smith asserts, it just had not traveled to Europe because the demand wasn’t there.
Smith follows with a number of ways in which the form and “bookhood” of our volumes have shaped our reading experience and habits. She tells the engaging story of the World War II-era “Editions for the Armed Services,” more than 1300 titles printed in a size to allow soldiers to slip them into a uniform pocket. Before the convenience of the iPhone, soldiers could pick up one of these editions and read everything “from the Iliad to Superman, from The Fireside Book of Dog Stories to Conrad’s Lord Jim, and from Voltaire to Hemingway” while in a trench, sitting in camp, or waiting to invade Normandy on D-Day. These editions helped win the war, which was fought, in part, against the book censorship of the Nazis. Smith addresses that story in another chapter. However, these editions also changed the peace, leading to, among other things, much more reading by the general public and the cheap paperback on the bedside table.
There are fascinating chapters on books as gifts, the making of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring into a classic, digital books, and the way that a 1955 photo of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses changed thoughts about the actress and the novel. In that latter section, Smith references the recent pandemic phenomenon of “bookcase shelfies” that attempt to sell TV and Zoom audiences on the character and intellectual heft of the speaker. Book-burnings, censoring, a full chapter on Mein Kampf, and bookbinding all come in for study as well.
Smith’s epilogue ends with a look at books as transformation.
…(W)e have always had different, complex motives for our relationships with our books. Jorge Luis Borges described a book as ‘a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships’: Portable Magic has argued for two particular kinds of relationships in our long love affair with books. One is the interconnectedness of book form and book content. And the other is the reciprocity and proximity of books and their readers, in relationships that leave both parties changed.
And Smith goes on to point out how that plays out with this particular work.
This copy of Portable Magic now carries traces of your DNA in its gutter, your fingerprints on its cover. If you own it, you can bend its page corners or write your name in it or make satirical comments in the margin. You can lend it, or return it to the library, or give it away, or send it to the charity shop, but it will always be somehow yours.
Smith is making the point that book and reader become one, in both form and content. In thinking of the books I have owned, marked up, read and re-read, shared, given away, discussed and forgotten — from If Everybody Did to Portable Magic — I am reminded of the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby which speaks to the special power of books:
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”
Smith ends her survey of the topic along the same lines, by suggesting that “a book becomes a book in the hands of its readers. It is an interactive object. A book that is not handled and read is not really a book at all.”
Go make a book a book today!
More to come…
For other More to Come posts on books, check out:
- America’s problem is not that we’re reading too many books (February 21, 2022)
- In praise of public libraries (October 27, 2020)
- Lamenting the late, great card catalog (July 16, 2017)
As always, this Weekly Reader features links to recent articles, blog posts, or books that grabbed my interest or tickled my fancy. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Image: Penelope Fletcher, bookseller extraordinaire, in front of the Red Wheelbarrow bookstore, 9 rue de Medicis, Paris. Right across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens in 2019 (photo credit: Janet Hulstrand in Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.)
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