Love letter to the printed word

On the material culture of the book


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

As a Shakespeare scholar, Emma Smith is known for her work on the First Folio, a newly-discovered copy of which she authenticated in 2016. But it was with This is Shakespeare (2019) that she reached a wider readership, delighting non-specialists with her subtle yet no-nonsense insights into the plays. That book was based on a series of podcast lectures, its oral origins traceable in the lively accessibility of its literary voice. 

We hold the book, we touch it, sometimes we even smell it

Her talent for communicating complex material in conversational, occasionally irreverent, prose, is apparent in Portable Magic, which transforms the dusty scholarly discipline of bibliography into a world of wonders. Despite the subtitle, this is not a conventional history in the sense of a chronological narrative. Instead, it is a series of freewheeling essays, based on case studies, in which Smith explores what she calls “bookhood”: a concept that focuses on the material culture of the book, while revealing how inexorably it is tangled up with human desire, aspiration and power. 

Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers, Emma Smith (Allen Lane, £20)

The range of reference is vast. One moment we are in Korea, where printed books with movable metal type long predated the Gutenberg Bible. The next we are in Islington public library, where volumes defaced with sub-Surrealistic add-ons by 1960s playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell are now proudly displayed as art treasures — at the time, they were jailed for their efforts.

The magistrate in the Orton case pronounced the defendants’ ludic interventions — which included collaging an image of a monkey onto a rose in a gardening manual — to be “disastrous”. Such a belief in the inviolability of the book gives credence to the views of an unnamed African that books are a “white man’s fetish”. You cannot underestimate the power of the book in Western culture. Cemented with the rise of Christianity, it took on equally life or death meaning in the battle between liberalism and totalitarianism in the twentieth century. Yet the Latin liber (book) and liber (free) are, sadly, false friends, at least etymologically.

“Books are not absolutely dead things but do contain a potency of life in them,” wrote Milton in Areopagitica (1644). For Smith, that life is “located in their physical form as much as in their metaphysical content”. She reminds us that reading a book is an intimate sensory experience, not just the abstract transfer of information into our minds. We hold the book, we touch it, sometimes we even smell it (librarians have devised an odour chart to catalogue the olfactory qualities of ancient tomes). Books and bodies go together. 

Portable Magic is far from being an unsentimental love letter

The anthropomorphic “spines” of books make them seem our twins, yet their physical longevity can underline — and undermine — our mortality. In the eighth century, a book was placed in the coffin of St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne: a sublimely beautiful Latin Gospel, handwritten by a scribe, with tooled red goatskin binding, now in the British Library. A Mr John Underwood provides a bathetic contrast: he was interred along with several books in 1733, including “Bentley’s Horace under his Arse’”.

The Latin Gospel from St Cuthbert’s coffin

More worrying is Smith’s chapter on anthropodermic book bindings — made from human skin — which were once assumed to be fakes, appealing to Gothic fantasies. Modern DNA analysis has proved that several known examples are all too real, including a 19th-century American gynaecological textbook bound in the thigh skin of Mary Lynch, a pauper Irish immigrant who died aged 29 of consumption. When Smith begins to explore the question of race, the morally rebarbative nuances are placed further under the

As recently as 1932, a copy of Dale Carnegie’s biography of Abraham Lincoln proclaimed itself as adorned on the spine with a patch of “skin taken from the shin of a Negro at Baltimore Hospital and tanned by the Jewell Belting Company”. It’s hard to see how you could make the idea more repulsive, except by that addition of brand-name advertising. 

Two volumes by the 18th-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley, currently in Cincinnati libraries, are bound in human skin. Exactly what was intended by this — the original owner of the Wheatley volumes is recorded as an enthusiastic white collector of African American literature — is obscure. But racism, especially when unconscious, plunges irrational depths and takes many forms. We may like to think of book culture as morally and rationally superior but at every level its roots are complicated.

One of Smith’s best chapters explores the publishing history of Mein Kampf. The first edition, published in two volumes in 1925-6, had slow sales and, despite the swastika on the spine, was modestly presented, with conventional (for the time) art deco titling. By the time the Nazis were in power, a mass market, yet grander, version had appeared, quarter bound in leather with gold Gothic lettering on the front, given as a freebie marriage gift under the Third Reich. With a blank space for adding the names of the happy couple, it even had a slipcase, like a prayer book. 

A signed first edition of Mein Kampf, Bloomsbury Auction House, London, 14 June 2005

Then in 1941, the Nazis suddenly decided that the Gothic script, with which they had been previously identified, was in fact a Jewish invention, so they switched typeface. In our own era, Mein Kampf was recently republished in an academic edition surrounded by explanatory footnotes and commentary. Did such contextualisation, intended to neuter it, unwittingly lend it specious authority?

Smith is clearly a zesty bibliophile for whom books mean more than their contents, but Portable Magic is far from being an unsentimental love letter
to the book. Her scholarly knowledge gives her an awareness that the book can be as dangerous as it can be benign. In This is Shakespeare she emphasised the Bard’s uncanny capacity for what she called “gappiness”, and what Keats called “negative capability” — the ability to live with doubts and ambiguities and to feel how crucial that is to understanding the reality of our human condition. 

Smith’s genius as a self-confessed book lover is to question as well as to value and register every contradiction — and to make you, the reader, think without even suspecting that you are. My only cavil is that her infectious enthusiasm at times makes her argument — which works by the association of ideas — seem a little breathless due to overlong paragraphs. 

I’ll leave you with the thought of 2.5 million unsold Mills and Boons being pulped and then recycled to create a noise-reducing layer under the surface of the M6 in the Midlands.

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