Reviews for Portable magic : a history of books and their readers

Kirkus
Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A critical look at trends in printing and book production as they relate to world history. Smith, a professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford and author of This Is Shakespeare, begins by examining various motivations for the mass distribution of books. These have ranged from the nefarious desires of European powers to further their imperialist, colonial agendas and disseminate propaganda to the radical desires of abolitionist societies to spread anti-slavery messages to women—and raise money for abolitionist causes—through the distribution of abolitionist texts disguised as the predecessors of Christmas-themed women’s literature. The development of the paperback, writes Smith, was directly related to the free distribution of Armed Services Editions to Americans serving abroad in the years during and after World War II. These cheaply stapled but durable books popularized such titles as The Great Gatsby, which, though now iconic, was not widely read before its inclusion in the Armed Services collection. This initiative led to printing methods that assured the affordability of texts like Silent Spring, and that book’s widespread distribution helped spur the modern environmental movement. Smith also overturns common myths about literary history, most notably the idea that Gutenberg created the first printing press. “Chinese and Korean pioneers of print predated Gutenberg by centuries,” writes the author, “and the relatively low cost of bamboo-fiber paper in East Asia meant that early print was a less elite technology in these regions. Chinese print technology developed movable type.” The author’s trenchant analysis, attention to detail, and conversational tone combine to make a page-turning historical study. At times, though, the rapid narrative pace becomes frustrating, as the author skips rapidly through trends—e.g., abolitionist book sales—that warrant more space. Nonetheless, Smith’s work is a delight for bibliophiles, historians, and curious readers craving an unconventional piece of nonfiction. A fascinating material history of the book told through a geopolitical lens. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.