The potted biography at the start of Emma Smith’s Portable Magic: A History of Books and their readers (2022) informs the reader that she is Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, Oxford.
Arrogantly assuming I knew my stuff, I expected a predictable, fairly linear trawl through the scriptural centuries: some stuff on papyrus and the Chinese, a fair bit on illuminated vellum and the Jarrow scriptorium, then loads on the explosion of Gutenberg, its continuing fall-out and a fair bit of stuff about quartos and folios. I thought I pretty much knew what to expect. Go on I harrumphed, as I settled down with Professor Smith’s book, a plate of cheese and a glass of gout-inducing tawny port. Tell me something I don’t know. Surprise me.
Well, I asked for it. She told me something I didn’t know on pretty much every scintillating page of this decidedly non-linear gem. “As it is organised neither chronologically nor geographically,” she writes, “I hope that the chapters can be read in any order…” They very much can.
This absorbing, entertaining, scholarly, wise, humane, beautifully written love-letter to books and the people who have written them, printed them, bound them, stolen them, defaced them, gifted them, burned them, translated them, collected them and, of course, read them, had me enchanted from the get-go to the final, moving chapter.
I also learned several new words. My favourite, though I’m still hesitant on pronunciation, is skeuomorphic. It refers to the way new technologies adopt design aspects of their predecessors, like Microsoft Windows adopting the symbolism of old-school files, folders, pages and helpful paperclips.
A celebration of “Bookhood”
“Bookhood”, she writes in her introduction, “is remembering the smell and feel of a loved story, not just its plot or characters… Literary works don’t exist in some ideal and immaterial state”, she points out – “They are made of paper and leather and labour and handling. I want us to explore and celebrate this material heft…”
If, like me at 17, you were as enchanted by the whiff of decay and disappointment from the stained, yellowing pages of second-hand orange-spined Penguin Graham Greene paperbacks – or the more dignified Bodley Head hardbacks from Wigan’s Central library – as you were by the gloomy plots, laconic dialogue and pervasive sense of theological despair, you’ll feel that you’re in the hands of someone who understands.
There are erudite, fascinating chapters on the state-sponsored rise of the wartime paperback; the irresistible rise of the Victorian Christmas gift-book (or annual); the ways in which visual representations of readers with their books (eg Madame du Pompadour, Marilyn Monroe) have been used to enact and counteract propaganda; Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell’s hilariously surreal desecrations of Islington Public Library’s stock; anthropodermic binding (books bound with human skin); the weird post-war publication history of Hitler’s Mein Kampf; and the tragic story of Native Americans’ co-optation into the eradication of their own cultures and languages through Bible-printing in 17th Century New England.
“All the books of Martin, wheresoever found, should be burnt…”
One of Smith’s most fascinating chapters is about book burning.
Before she gets to the synchronised Nazi book bonfires of May, 1933 – the bibliocaust in which volumes by Einstein, Freud, Gide, Brecht, Kafka, Hemingway and many others were ritually consigned to the flames by enthusiastic German students – she describes the counter-Reformationist zeal with which works by Luther, Calvin and Tyndale were publicly incinerated in the 16th Century.
She also points out that although many of us might regard book-burning as an almost blasphemous act of yahoo-ish savagery, – an offence against civilisation, against humanity – the vast majority of book-executions (burning, pulping or re-purposing) are performed by publishers wanting to unload unbought stock to make room in their warehouses for more profitable, bestselling stuff.
There’s nothing that sacred, she argues, about an easily reproducible book, and takes issue with Ray Bradbury’s famous reflection on the Nazi book burnings: “[W]hen Hitler burned a book, I felt it as keenly […] as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”
Smith is rational and firm: “I’m not sure we should forgive this false equivalence, nor fall for this rhetorical trick”, she writes. In the immediate aftermath of the 1933 book burnings, the Nazi action was generally regarded as more childish than alarming. It was only some ten years later, she points out, when the news of the death camps and crematoria became more widespread, that people looked back on students pitching Zola, Wells and Kastner onto nocturnal pyres as validation of Heinrich Heine’s 1820s prediction:
“Where men burn books,
They will burn people also in the end.”
Smith fairly bristles by the end of the chapter: “books are not people, and it is morally repugnant to bracket their destruction together in the same breath.”
Censorship: the Streisand effect
Having recently written about censorship myself, I was particularly interested in the tenth chapter, Censored books: ‘237 goddams, 58 bastards, 31 Chrissakes, and 1 fart. Smith’s beautifully forensic and satisfyingly dry account of the largely pointless endeavour to censor books over the centuries since Gutenberg.
She is clearly taken by William Sankey, the 17th Century Jesuit who expunged objectionable bits of Shakespeare from the Valladolid seminary’s copy of the 1632 Second Folio via the simple expedient of blocking them out with swathes of black ink. Words, phrases, and sometimes entire passages were very visibly redacted by the priest’s stern quill: very obviously the opposite of ‘Nothing to see here’ and not the only time, she points out, that attempts to censor books have had what we now refer to as the ‘Streisand effect’. The more they tell us not to look, the more we do.
The Catholic Church’s (in)famous indices of forbidden books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) and books which might only be read with certain bits expunged (Index Expurgatorius) also misfired in this way. Keen anti-Papists, thanks to the Church’s own efforts, now knew exactly where to look for the best bits of anti-Catholic material to rile Mother Church or counter the snares of Rome.
Whether it’s the Catholic Church’s ‘ban’ on Milton’s Paradise Lost (finally lifted in 1966) or the British legal injunctions against the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, expurgating or trying to ban books outright, Smith argues, is a fairly futile endeavour.
Nothing stays banned for long and, in the lightning-fast days of the internet, the merest hint of a ban often means instant ubiquity.
Probably the best book I’ve read this year
Smith’s prose is a sheer delight. We’re all used to the two extremes of non-fictional informative style: the dry, turgid academic determined to churn through his/her bulky, formidable material and the breezy, upbeat populist, like some terrified supply teacher, terrified of boring the audience, forever cracking lame jokes and skipping nervously over details. Smith commits neither of these sins. She writes with authority, clarity, humanity, and a good deal of wit.
For its academic heft, dexterity, sly ironies, supply of fascinating detail, sinuous, witty prose, and sheer engagement with its subject, this is probably the best book I’ve read this year. Glorious stuff.
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