As lockdowns were imposed and Zoom took over our lives, the bookcase emerged as a must-have background prop. This trend spawned a Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility), which pokes fun at public figures' pursuit of this shallow indicator of intellect.
Using books as an aesthetic currency may rankle the devoted readers among us, but it points to the fact that they are objects in their own right and take on meanings beyond the words on their pages. These meanings are the focus of Portable Magic by Emma Smith, who, as a professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University, spends much of her professional life dealing with historic manuscripts.
Deviating from purely academic writing, Smith takes the reader on a whistlestop tour through the history of the book as an object and unearths dozens of quirky facts obscured by more conventional histories - like 2.5 million copies of Mills and Boon being pulped for use as "an absorbent, noise-reducing layer for resurfacing the M6 tollway". Or the Virgin Mary being the most famous reader depicted in art. On the other hand, it is probably less surprising that in 2016, charity bookshops were forced to issue a press release requesting the public to stop donating used copies of Fifty Shades of Grey as they were completely inundated. More relevant for our own times is the book's role as a vector of disease: in the late 1800s it was feared that library books could transmit tuberculosis, scarlet fever and smallpox, and with the advent of COVID-19 libraries began to quarantine books.
Smith dismantles some conventional wisdom about the rise of the book. While it has long been taken for granted that the invention of the printing press in the 1400s was a response to demand, Smith asserts that it was the other way around, whereby an expanding base of potential customers "created the economic and entrepreneurial incentive to develop it".
Similarly, while Portable Magic remains a western history, Smith does at least challenge some of the more colonial precepts that continue to dominate histories of books and knowledge. In particular, she notes that print was not a European invention, and provides a roll-call of much earlier technologies in China and Korea. She also draws attention to the way Gutenberg's production of the bible was enmeshed in the larger geopolitical project of "protecting" Christendom against Islam following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Army, and how print was employed as a colonial tool by missionaries in the 19th century as they sought to establish the primacy of text over oral traditions.
Smith's investigation takes a darker turn when she contemplates book-burning. Rather surprisingly, she vehemently takes issue with the conflation of book-burning and genocide, arguing that comparing the two is a "false equivalence" and that people who burn books are "usually inadequate attention-seekers rather than genocidal tyrants". It may be easy for some of us to dismiss more recent episodes of book-burning, such as evangelical pastors burning copies of Harry Potter, but the destruction of patrimony in conflict is actually a war crime under the Hague Convention of 1954, and was prosecuted as such by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Smith's chapter on book-burning exemplifies the book's major flaw. Rather oddly for a scholar of a historical bent, she groups together case studies that leap wildly between temporal and cultural contexts. The pulping of books for the M6 tollway is, for example, discussed in the same chapter as the Nazi book-burnings, a juxtaposition that does read as a little callous. In another chapter, she examines a 17th century painting depicting the sitter's love of books alongside a photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. The examples are held together by the unifying theme of "bookhood", a 19th century neologism that Smith wants to bring back, but the result is somewhat ahistorical, as discussion of the specific circumstances underpinning each case study is sacrificed to uphold the idea that books have lives of their own.
Smith is also conspicuously silent on some contentious issues. She avoids debates about the marketplace, such as the ethical implications of the rise of Amazon - although, given she admits she has a Kindle, she is clearly not against this behemoth. She also does not examine the effect of book production on climate change, a line of inquiry that would have fit with her theme, given it places in question the future of the book as a physical object.
Smith's scholarly career has furnished her with unique insight into the role of the book as a cultural artefact. Her shift from scholarly writing to writing for a general audience is not always successful, but her subject matter will warm the hearts of bibliophiles.
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