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The ultimate in shelf gratification

Spine-tingling stories of our relationship with the most perfect format of them all.. the book

Marilyn Monroe reads The Poetry and Prose of Heinrich Heine, circa 1951. She was later photographed reading Joyce’s Ulysses (Photo: Archive Photos/ THE ULTIMATE Getty)

The most unusual – and probably most valuable – book I own is a small, ancient and very fragile paperback called Romantic Tales published on
November 27, 1802. Don’t let the insipid title fool you, it contains three
deliciously melodramatic stories called The Revengeful Turk, The Distressed Nun and The Vindictive Monk by a Gothic novelist named Isaac Crookenden, who was my great-great-great-great-great-uncle.

I was quite excited to discover a novelist among the thieves, paupers and vagabonds who otherwise comprise my ancestry. At least I was, until I learned from an encyclopaedia of Gothic fiction that far from inhabiting a high-falutin’ Georgian world of literary salons and getting off his face with Coleridge, Uncle Isaac sat in his attic room in Deptford and “churned out chapbooks which endlessly retold the same gory tale packaged as ‘shilling shockers’ which were invariably plagiarised or abridged versions of Gothic novels”.

Crookenden – who was also Sir Laurence Olivier’s great-great-great-grandfather, fact fans – was one of a group of writers around the turn of the
19th century who would take novels, which in those days were expensive hardback editions in three volumes, and rewrite them, changing the titles
and character names, cranking up the salaciousness and having them
printed up to sell as ‘shilling shockers’ (although it seems Crookenden’s were
so dodgy they weren’t even worth a shilling – Romantic Tales was punted
for sixpence).

So poorly produced were they – Crookenden would most probably have sold his around the pubs and dockyards of Deptford and Greenwich and may even have tinted the coloured frontispiece on my copy himself – that few survive and I’m lucky to have sourced this one. I often wonder where it has been for the last two centuries, whose hands it has passed through, what shelves it has sat on, and I do feel a connection to my literary antecedent
whenever I pick it up.

In fact, the connection I feel with my dubious literary ancestor whenever I
open Romantic Tales is probably more tangible than I realised because, as I
learned this week, traces of his DNA are probably still trapped in its pages.

“The gutters – the channel between facing pages of a book – are full of
human material: the book accretes and stores literal traces of its readers,” writes Emma Smith in her hugely enjoyable Portable Magic: A History of
Books and their Readers
. “Inside each book, there is a minuscule, uncatalogued but carefully preserved library of its human handlers.”

This is quite the bombshell when emerging from two years of vigorous
handwashing, sanitising and social distancing. It also put Isaac’s early death in 1809 at the age of 31 into sharp relief as I considered the possibility it was the result of a dreadful contagious disease whose virus is capable of sticking it out for a couple of centuries if incubated in cheap paper covered with iffy stories about kidnapped virgins incarcerated by nefarious monks.

As I remain symptom-free, so far sharing with Isaac only the book, a disposition towards overlong sentences and a cavalier attitude to narrative consistency (one story marries off a man who’d been murdered in grisly fashion a couple of chapters earlier), I like to think Smith would approve of my having paid a small fortune for a book barely 40 pages long from which the cover and last couple of pages are missing.

As her title, taken from Stephen King’s On Writing, might suggest, Portable Magic is a book in praise of books. Not their contents, their physical agency and desirability as objects, something Smith calls “bookhood”.

The book as a format is all but perfect. You don’t have to plug it in, you can use it anywhere, it can survive most mistreatments short of immolation and, if looked after even with a modicum of care, will last just about for ever. Most of us have books in our homes, some of us probably have too many. There are books on our shelves that we’ve kept from childhood, gifts from loved ones and books dedicated and signed by their authors. There are books bought new and secondhand, some of which reveal an idea of their history in the form of inscriptions by previous owners. Most of our books are volumes we’ve chosen ourselves, some read and re-read until the pages come loose, others that we’ve not even opened yet.

Books are intimate things, a physical object with which we share a large amount of time to the exclusion of everything else. We turn to them for
comfort, entertainment, distraction and information. Often a book is the
last thing we see before we go to sleep and sometimes there are days when
we’ll spend more one-to-one time with a book than we do with our partner. In Portable Magic Smith captures that intimacy and enhances it with some
frequently startling stories of our relationship with books.

While reams and reams are written about literature, surprisingly little has
appeared about books themselves. Smith more than steps into the breach with an enthralling journey through the world of bookhood. There’s no
dreary detailing of binding practices, paper types or expositions on the best
glue to use in book spines, instead utterly fascinating stories come at you
with relentless persistence, from books that stopped bullets to those with anthropodermic binding – covers made from human skin.

But it’s the people who keep Portable Magic rattling along. Johannes Gutenberg has gone down in history as the man who in effect invented the
modern book with his development of movable type in the 15th century. Having been a goldsmith and a wine-maker before pioneering the print
business, Gutenberg clearly had an eye for the main chance and thought
he’d made it big with his printing press, a development Smith says “is to
book production what opposable thumbs are to primate evolution”.

His famous bible, of which 170 copies were produced by 1455, ran to
1,282 pages in two volumes, a process that took six men two years to
complete, not including the time it took the imported paper to arrive in
Mainz over the Alps from Piedmont. For all his posthumous celebrity, this
clearly wasn’t really a viable business plan and Gutenberg was bankrupt
within a year.

As Smith points out, he wasn’t even the first. Block printing dates back to
9th-century China and the first traceable book produced using movable type is a volume of Buddhist teaching published in 1377. Subsequent western domination of the publishing world took with it a skewed domination of its origin story.

Smith’s obvious passion for the printed word produces some great lines. An extensive foray into the famous 1955 photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses, symbolically holding the first US edition published after a 1933 obscenity trial in the US 20 years earlier, concludes: “Like her, this specific hardback is a symbol of sexual and intellectual liberation.” In an absorbing discussion about what makes a book a classic, she cites Penguin’s regrettable pandering to Morrissey’s narcissism when publishing his autobiography under its Penguin Classics imprint in 2013. She notes that unlike other titles in the series Morrissey’s came with “no introduction, no timeline, no annotation, no Further Reading” and declares, “It looked like a classic but didn’t quack like one”.

Yet it’s people whose names we’ll never know who provide the most poignant reminder of the vital intimacy a book can provide. In 2019 Tom Kiefer, who worked at an Arizona detainment centre on the border between the US and Mexico, staged El Sueño Americano, “The American Dream”, an exhibition of his photographs depicting possessions taken from migrants and later discarded. Among the toothbrushes and toys is a photograph of six small, blue, Spanish-language New Testaments published by Gideons International.

These mass-produced editions are laid out on a paisley handkerchief, identical yet all different, their display revealing how these books brought as
essential personal possessions on a journey made in hope but fraught with
uncertainty become a part of the individual who owns them.

“One blue Bible is marked with a flutter of fluorescent Post-it notes;
another apparently contains photographs or other mementoes and is
kept closed with elastic bands; one has a cover bleached from sunlight; another has been curved around the contours of a body, having been carried in a pocket,” Smith writes, making each book “preciously one of a kind”.

There are books that become special to each of us. The Shape of the
by James Hay Stevens, published in 1953, won’t mean much
to most people and wouldn’t mean anything to me if a copy hadn’t been
presented to my late father as a school prize. And a tattered pseudo-pamphlet from the dawn of the 19th century full of salacious stolen stories would never have come into my possession were it not for a faint smidgen of DNA trapped in its pages, part of which is shared with the person who now treasures it.

Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers by Emma Smith is published by Allen Lane, price £20

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