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When books speak volumes

Emma Smith’s new work shows how books magically combine form and content, and the ways they have been created, presented, and suppressed over the years.

August 27, 2022 / 07:10 AM IST
The Diamond Sutra, an 868 CE Buddhist text which is the earliest dated example of block printing, can be found in the British Library. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Diamond Sutra, an 868 CE Buddhist text which is the earliest dated example of block printing, can be found in the British Library. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Why has the printed book played such a significant role in human affairs? For Oxford professor Emma Smith, one answer is that their form combines portability with content. In On Writing, Stephen King described books as “a uniquely portable magic”, and it’s apt that she borrows this for the title of her new work, Portable Magic.

Think about a book that has been important to you, Smith writes, and chances are that you will recall the feel of it in your hands, “the rustle of its pages, the smell of its binding”. To take out a beloved book from the shelves is to come across a familiar cover, foxed pages, and markers of personal use.

Smith ranges over many cases in which books have cast a spell, from the art of bibliomancy to talismanic volumes to – yikes – books bound in human portable magic history of books and their readers by emma smithskin. As she says in a comment close to the bone, “if we are made up of books, books are made up of us”.

Portable Magic, then, is a series of informed, iconoclastic observations on the materiality of books. Each chapter deals with what Smith refers to as “bookhood”. For literary scholar Jessica Pressman, “bookishness” is about engaging with the solidity of books in an ethereal digital realm; Smith’s “bookhood” interrogates their physical aspects over time.

John Keane, among others, has pointed out that the notion of democracy was born in the East and not the West, and Smith similarly debunks the myth that print was a European invention. Chinese and Korean printmakers pre-dated Gutenberg by centuries, and a five-metre scroll of the Diamond Sutra, an 868 CE Buddhist text, which is the earliest dated example of block printing, can be found in the British Library, no less. Paper technology was also refined during the Later Han period in the second century.


She joins the dots between the rise of print in Europe and the continent’s preoccupations in that era, when Constantinople had fallen to the Ottomans. For Smith, Gutenberg’s emerging print work was intertwined with the so-called war against Islam. “Large-scale Bibles must have looked like a canny sales opportunity at a time when Christendom felt itself under threat: their very size reimposed Christian dominance.” It was a short step from here to creating a sense of imperial superiority about the origins of print.

Printed books shaped Christmas celebrations even before Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Decorative gift books and literary annuals went a long way in creating a seasonal spirit of camaraderie in England. Many contained sentimental ditties, short stories and wood-cut engravings encased in the forerunners of dust jackets. Today’s popular Bengali Puja annuals still carry something of this spirit.

The affordable paperbacks on our shelves, Smith finds, have their origins not just in Allen Lane’s Penguins but also in titles recruited for the war effort by the American Council on Books in Wartime. As Roosevelt observed, books are like weaponised ships with “the toughest armour, the longest cruising range, and…the most powerful guns”. The CIA-backed Congress for Cultural Freedom was to surreptitiously refine and use such weapons during the subsequent Cold War.

Books have also been identity markers long before Zoom backgrounds. Smith provides three pictorial examples of women from England, France, and America to show how their volumes spoke volumes.

In proto-feminist Lady Anne Clifford’s 17th century Great Picture, all the panels of the triptych feature her at different stages, along with books on geography, history, philosophy and religion. In the next century, Madame de Pompadour’s portraits by François Boucher depict her with an open book, or in front of bookcases. That was how the former sought to convey her character and tastes; and how the latter tried to rebrand herself as a woman valued for intellect rather than sensuality.

Finally, symbols of “sexuality, transgression and American modernity” combine in Eve Arnold’s famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce’s Ulysses. Smith observes that in the picture the actress is clearly reading the book’s last section, Molly Bloom’s monologue, “praised for its recognition of women’s autonomous desires and pleasures”.

Portable Magic’s later chapters turn to ways that printed works have been destroyed and suppressed. The infamous date in this context is 10 May 1933, when Nazi-led book-burning events took place across Germany. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that ideological book-burning is almost as old as the book form itself.

In the cheerful words of Isaac D’Israeli, father of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “The Romans burnt the books of the Jews, of the Christians, and the Philosophers; the Jews burnt the books of the Christians and the Pagans; and the Christians burnt the books of the Pagans and the Jews.”

For Smith, such conflagrations are theatrical and symbolic, yet ineffectual. The dominant characteristic of printed books is reproducibility, and those who burn them are usually “inadequate attention-seekers”. That said, “books are not people, and it is morally repugnant to bracket their destruction together in the same breath”. Absolutely.

Censored books, too, don’t vanish but often remain “deeply and insistently present”. Bans can be good for business, as Penguin realised when their edition of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover sold out days after it was cleared of obscenity charges. In a similar vein but dissimilar context, sales of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses are reportedly on the rise again.

Smith also refers to the lawsuit against the Indian edition of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History. The publisher’s commitment to pulp the remaining copies was never actioned because readers “flocked to buy them… Doniger and her book went from quiet academic niche to front-page news, with sales to match”.

Unfortunately, censorship is hydra-headed. “The hotspot for literary censorship nowadays is not, as might perhaps be expected, in Iran, China or Georgia,” Smith tartly points out, “but in the American schoolroom”. Proscription can also create a chilling effect that “pre-empts the book object rather than being enacted upon the book itself”.

With the rise of e-books, concepts of what constitutes a book have become fuzzy. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, critic Leah Price asserted that our age continues, rather than breaks with, “a tradition of innovation that has seen new formats emerge over and over again”. Treating a printed book as a nostalgic bunker “may short-change its potential to engage with the world”.

Since Smith’s focus is on books as objects, her treatment of e-books is brief. She does point out that such versions “are platonic rather than pragmatic” because they shadow the codex form. Until e-books develop their own rhetoric, design and features, they are simply a “shadow or supplement of the physical book”.

Such books continue to display a reciprocal relationship between form and content, and between text and reader. They can “crack our spines, loosen our leaves, mark us with their dirty fingers and write in our margins just as much as we can theirs”. We’ve been bookmarked.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Aug 27, 2022 06:51 am
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