Book Review: Emma Smith’s Portable Magic is a book lover’s compendium to dip in and out of

Wearable magic

Wearable magicthe latest book by the Shakespearean scholar Emma Smith, is more than just a book about books. Or rather, it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a book about books. Rather than being a cultural history of books, reading and publishing, it is a thematic presentation of books as physical objects.

Divided into chapters on book collecting, library book defacing, and the history of book gifting and book vouchers, this nifty little volume whizzes through history and covers something that might well be uncharted territory for bibliophiles. The subtitle is “A History of Books and Their Readers”., it is, more precisely, an account of books and their collectors; because reading books is not necessarily a requirement to be mentioned in the book at all.

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Smith adopts an odd tone in her writings here that is a mixture of conversational and academic. Sometimes it’s a little strange to read. Because while these are intellectual terms, the anecdotes told are often short and snappy, and more like the sort of stories you might tell a friend at the pub. For example, there is a brief account of rare books that were lost along with their owners when the titanicand an account of an ongoing campaign to vandalize library books reclassified as works of art.

Smith makes no great attempt to formulate a thesis in recounting these events, instead reveling in the breadth of the impact books as objects have had on people’s lives. Every book collector will find points of contact on these pages. Although they may find the book easier to immerse themselves in rather than read cover to cover – something the author mentions early on in the introduction.

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An early chapter of the book deals with the emergence of gift books, which were produced in limited editions for Christmas to solve the problem of what to give to the bookworm who already has everything. Oddly enough, one could almost describe it like this Wearable magic, although it’s released mid-year rather than in the run-up to October through December. While it didn’t delve deeply enough into the lasting cultural impact of books and book collections for my liking, it was a nice introduction and its lush hardcover printing will make a perfect edition for your home library

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Portable Magic: A History of Books and Their Readers by Emma Smith is available now from Penguin Books. Get your copy of Booktopia HERE.

Emily Paull

Emily Paull is a former bookseller turned librarian. Her debut book, Well-Behaved Women, was published by Margaret River Press in 2019.

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