Sorcery and the apprentice

In Portable Magic, Emma Smiths us to attend to the “accidentals” of a book: the paratexts, physical trappings and adornments that make up what she calls “bookhood”. Taking her advice, we might start with her author biography, which appears on the dust jacket. Light on her credentials (Smith “went unexpectedly to university in Oxford, and never really left”), it is also affably informal: “She enjoys silent films, birdwatching, and fast cars.”

Sure enough, this paratextual signpost gives a good clue to what lies inside. The book’s main theoretical points – on the “interconnectedness of book form and book content” and “the reciprocity and proximity of books and their readers” – will be familiar, especially to early modernists like Smith who are well used to the “material turn” towards bibliography in Renaissance studies. But the real pleasure of Portable Magic is its function as a sort of biblio-biography: a portrait of the author in books, or at least a guided tour by a celebrated craftswoman to the tools of her trade. Referring to the sortes Virgilianaethe superstitious practice of opening Virgil at random to gain mystical insight, Smith expresses her hope that we might read her book as a sortes Smithianae – a Smithian selection, flitting between myriad periods and genres, to be dipped into here and there.

The thematic arrangement of the chapters makes for some pleasingly giddy pairings. In consecutive sentences, we move from the cover of Jilly Cooper’s novel Riders, with its famous “curvaceous jodhpured bottom”, to St Boniface’s eighth-century commission of a copy of the epistles of St Peter (it made similarly impressive use of luxuriant gold lettering). Another associative stream takes us from the books of the robber baron bibliophile collector Harry Widener, who died as a passenger of the Titanicto books as “diasporic objects” in the hands of refugees, and on to the repatriation of the Poetic Edda – a collection of anonymous narrative poems in Old Norse – from Denmark to Iceland. The chapter on book-burnings starts with the ceremonial destruction of Martin Luther’s works during the Reformation and ends with the pulped Mills & Boon novels that were recycled to resurface the M6 ​​motorway.

Some consistent themes emerge in Smith’s handling of these wide-ranging materials. One of them is power. Portable Magic opens with a discussion of the cautionary tale of the sorcerer’s apprentice: a foolhardy pupil steals a weighty magical tome from his master and misuses it with nasty consequences. This is a folk ur-narrative with many retellings because, Smith suggests, it articulates the power of books as agents of “social differentiation”. Books are dangerous in the “wrong”, lower-status (and by implication inept) hands. But that logic is thrillingly self-undermining, because it implies that “once the pupil can manipulate the book of knowledge effectively, he will become the master”. So books can also disrupt hierarchies of class, gender and race. Take the Eliot Bible, a 1661 translation of the New Testament by John Eliot, a Puritan pioneer, from English into a phonetically spelt Wôpanâak, an indigenous American language. With its invented orthography, this book was partly “a colonial propaganda curio for supporters back in England”. But copies survive with marginal notes from early indigenous readers. One records “five great snows”; another notes births and deaths. Both “troubling and touching”, these marginalia transform the book into a place where the one-way traffic of colonial cultural transmission is contested. Or, as Smith summarizes it, “the empire writes back”. The Eliot Bible’s status has since shifted again: it has become an invaluable resource for linguists seeking to uncover indigenous “ancestral language”.

In some cases, books bespeak real-world power relations in forcefully literal ways. The Bodleian library holds a paperback copy of Raymond Chandler’s short-story collection Smart-Aleck Kill, once owned by the South African trade unionist and activist Ron Press, that contains a hidden bomb-making manual. We also read of a bible owned by Francesco Morosini, a seventeenth-century Doge of Venice, that had a carved-out compartment for a gun. This could be fired with a pull of the Bible’s silk bookmark. One deeply uncomfortable chapter covers the few surviving “anthropodermic” books – that is, books bound using human skin, usually taken from the marginalized: enslaved people, paupers, felons.

It’s not all Foucaultian doom and gloom. The most compelling chapter concerns three historic “shelfies” – images of bibliographic self-identity. Lady Anne Clifford’s “Great Picture” (1646), a triptych portrait showing volumes of Ovid, Chaucer and Cervantes in the background, articulates her humanist erudition. A century later Madame de Pompadour, official mistress to King Louis XV, commissioned a book-in-hand portrait in which Smith finds echoes of conventional imagery of the Annunciation, combining “sexuality, erudition and the ironic reworking of pious iconographic traditions”. Then there’s the photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce’s Ulysses, itself a symbol of “sexual and intellectual liberation”. This is a transhistorical interpretation at its most revelatory. It doesn’t always come off: on occasion, the historical sweep can have a flattening effect (a short section on “cancelled” authors in a chapter on censored books is especially guilty of this, throwing Julie Burchill in alongside Lady Chatterley and the early Chatterley and the modern papacy).

On the whole, though, it’s difficult not to be swept along by the book’s energy, which is akin to that of the best late-night dinner party conversations. The prose helps. In one memorable passage, book inscriptions are said to render social networks “visible, like a kind of bibliographic barium meal”. There’s also a sense of humour. When describing an experimental book constructed by the artist Ben Denzer out of slices of mortadella, Smith writes that it combines form and content “so completely that these are identical. What is the book of mortadella about? Mortadella. What else could it possibly have to say to us?” If an answer were to be found anywhere, it would surely be in this melting pot of Smithiana.

James Waddell is a PhD candidate in English at UCL. He was runner-up in the 2021 Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for Arts Journalism

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