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Portable Magic review by Emma Smith – a love letter to reading | history books

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OOne of the more familiar visual tropes to emerge from the pandemic has been of Serious People sitting in front of their bookshelves. Whether it’s a minister on TV or an accountant working from home, Zoom’s poetics insist on a title backdrop made up of equal parts sultry professional textbook, well-rehearsed Penguin Classic and, for those who like to up the ante, last year’s. List of International Booker Prize finalists. Books don’t just furnish a room, they show the world exactly how you would like to be read.

In this brilliantly written account of book-object-material, Emma Smith explains that people have been posing in front of their bookcases since Gutenberg started launching the printing press. Before, in fact: one of his first revelations is that people in China and Korea were printing books centuries before the gloom of Northern Europe took hold. Yet one of the ablest proponents of the early “shelfie” was Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, also known as Madame de Pompadour, companion of Louis XV. In the 1750s, as Joan made the delicate transition from headmistress for learned woman, she hires her favorite painter, François Boucher, to lead the transformation. Now he had to paint her against the backdrop of crowded bookshelves or, better yet, reading a book and looking pensive.

Boucher was careful to give the bookish Jeanne the same creamy cleavage and lavish sweep of a silk dress that featured in her early publicity portraits, on the grounds that there was no reason a woman shouldn’t. can’t be smart and sexy too. It’s a message Marilyn Monroe took to heart when in 1955 she posed for the famous photograph taken by Eve Arnold, in which she wears a bathing suit as she is engrossed in Ulysses, a novel often described as illegible. The following year, Monroe would marry playwright Arthur Miller, prompting Variety’s famous headline: “Egghead Weds Hourglass.” Monroe’s “shelfie” therefore functions in much the same way as Madame de Pompadour’s careful self-directedness as she transitions from pin-up girl to public intellectual.

In Portable Magic – the expression is borrowed from Stephen King – Smith’s subject is the materiality of reading, or what she calls “bookhood”. Books in their physical form prove to be endlessly adaptable, not only in the home space as doorstops, yoga blocks, and the occasional kindle when times get tough, but also in the world. During World War I, pocket Bibles were clad in all-metal jackets in the hope that, worn close to the heart, they could save a soldier from enemy fire while saving his soul. More mundane is the revelation that at the start of this century fragments of some 2.5 million copies of Mills & Boon novels were used to create an absorbent, noise-reducing layer for surfacing the M6 ​​toll motorway in the Midlands. This, however, should not be taken as a commentary on commercial romantic fiction: Smith reminds us that being turned into substrate, or something like that, is the fate of most books, high or low. Its own publisher, the prestigious Penguin Random House, runs a large “centralized returns processing site” in Essex which shreds, crushes and bales around 25,000 of its own books every day.

One of the library book covers defaced by Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell. Photography: Felix Clay

More cheerful is Smith’s account of the creative intervention perpetrated by Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell on their library books in the late 1950s and early 1960s. their local Islington branch and spent the intervening weeks cutting out the cover images and patching them up with something surreal before putting the books back into circulation. Phyllis Hambledon’s 1960 bodice ripper Queen’s Favorite had its cover redesigned so that instead of a wasp-waisted young woman in a ruff, the main characters were now two shirtless male wrestlers. In a study by John Betjeman, the photograph of the poet in a straw hat was replaced by that of a pot-bellied, heavily tattooed man in his underpants. Orton and Halliwell also had their way with blurbs, so the inside pane of Gaudy Nights hailed Dorothy L Sayers “at her weirdest, and needless to say, her rudest!”

Smith reads the actions of Orton and Halliwell as a kind of queer performance art. They weren’t vandals, or at least that wasn’t all. The books they shoved were mass-produced and easily replaceable – it wasn’t the literary equivalent of drawing mustaches on old masters. On the contrary, the men were engaged in a protest against the relentlessly average heteronormative porridge offered to the citizens of Islington. Within a few years, Orton wrote Loot and Entertaining Mr Sloane, the avant-garde plays that rocked a British theater already bored by the kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s. Yet Orton believed that the reason he and Halliwell were sentenced to six months in prison was because they were gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal. The Daily Express reported, on the same page as the Orton-Halliwell book trial, that a drunk driver who killed his passenger received the same sentence as the Essex Road book vandals.

When confused-minded Puritans worried about the “poison” Orton and Halliwell were releasing into the body politic, they relied on ancient terrors about the book as a vector of disease. As late as 1907, public health authorities decreed that any volume from a household recently visited by smallpox, cholera or tuberculosis must be disinfected, if not destroyed, lest it carry the contamination. far away. Smith quickly sees a parallel here with the early days of the pandemic, when government guidelines warned that books purchased online should be quarantined for 72 hours before they were deemed safe to handle.

How exciting, then, to learn that this principle can also work the other way around. Smith explains that old volumes are now being harvested for the accumulated DNA — the skin cells and traces of nasal mucus from sneezes — left behind by early readers. On one level, it allows us to glimpse people from the past poring over a particular volume: the detritus of an American Bible from 1637 recently revealed the DNA of a northern European reader who suffered from acne . More therapeutically, plans are underway to swab old books to collect genetic material that predates modern medical issues such as antibiotic resistance.

Portable Magic is a love song to the book as a physical object. In tactile prose, Smith reminds us of the thrills of shabby covers, the illicit pleasure of writing in the margins when you’ve been told not to, and the guilty joy that comes from poring over the traces someone left behind. another. It’s those haptic, visceral and even slightly seedy pleasures of “delivery” that she so brilliantly brings to life.

Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers is published by Allen Lane (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy for £17 from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply