Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers - Emma Smith; | Foyles Bookstore
Enter your search into one or more of the boxes below:
You can refine your search by selecting from any of the options below:
Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers
Foyalty 60

Portable Magic: A History of Books and their Readers (Hardback)

UK delivery within 5 days


'A fascinating journey into our relationship with the physical book...I lost count of the times I exclaimed with delight when I read a nugget of information I hadn't encountered before' Val McDermid, The Times

Most of what we say about books is really about the words inside them: the rosy nostalgic glow for childhood reading, the lifetime companionship of a much-loved novel. But books are things as well as words, objects in our lives as well as worlds in our heads. And just as we crack their spines, loosen their leaves and write in their margins, so they disrupt and disorder us in turn. All books are, as Stephen King put it, 'a uniquely portable magic'. Here, Emma Smith shows us why.

Portable Magic unfurls an exciting and iconoclastic new story of the book in human hands, exploring when, why and how it acquired its particular hold over us. Gathering together a millennium's worth of pivotal encounters with volumes big and small, Smith reveals that, as much as their contents, it is books' physical form - their 'bookhood' - that lends them their distinctive and sometimes dangerous magic. From the Diamond Sutra to Jilly Cooper's Riders, to a book made of wrapped slices of cheese, this composite artisanal object has, for centuries, embodied and extended relationships between readers, nations, ideologies and cultures, in significant and unpredictable ways.

Exploring the unexpected and unseen consequences of our love affair with books, Portable Magic hails the rise of the mass-market paperback, and dismantles the myth that print began with Gutenberg; it reveals how our reading habits have been shaped by American soldiers, and proposes new definitions of a 'classic'-and even of the book itself. Ultimately, it illuminates the ways in which our relationship with the written word is more reciprocal - and more turbulent - than we tend to imagine.

Emma Smith was born and brought up in Leeds, went unexpectedly to university in Oxford, and never really left. She is now Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College and the author of the Sunday Times bestseller This is Shakespeare. She enjoys silent films, birdwatching, and fast cars.

More books by Emma Smith

Customer Reviews

Although I primarily read fiction I doubt there are many book lovers who could resist a book about all things bookish and more specifically the history of the book in human hands. This book is exactly that and traces development from pre-Gutenberg times through to ebooks and includes details on everything from production, censorship, book burning, malicious damage of library books and book collecting. As Emma Smith states, “books are ordinary things that become special in the unpredictable and unique human connections they embody and extend”, but there is no doubt that form matters. Although when we talk about books we emphasise how they made us feel and what they made us think as opposed to how they felt, quite often the content is inseparable from the form in which we first encountered them (probably best evidenced by our connection with the books of our childhood). Having seen incredibly favourable reviews of Portable Magic in two broadsheet newspapers I was eager to immerse myself in the contents which sounded like the perfect book to dip into, with chapters that standalone and do not need to be read in a specific order. The book is jam-packed with fascinating snippets and facts about the history of all things bookish and its scope is phenomenal. Indeed for a mainstream general reader I felt it needed to be pared back somewhat because frankly the prose is so free-ranging that I found it all rather dizzying! Chapters start and seem to lurch at breakneck speed through a thousand topics and by the time I reached the end I found I had lost sight of where it all started out. Emma Smith is clearly fiercely intelligent and there is no doubt that she writes well and in a lively manner which I enjoyed for the most part, but if she had only stayed a little more on-topic I expect I would have found the contents a whole lot more accessible. Whilst Portable Magic is undoubtedly a valuable resource for any bookshelf, as a regular reader and not an academic, I found it too discursive and a bit all over the shop! Terrific content but it is not the easiest read and I would be hard pushed to recommend it for the average keen fiction reader. Notes on each chapter with further references are included along with an index.

- 08/05/2022
Report this Review

This title lives up to its billing as a biography of books. It starts off with an introductory section which provides some context as to why books were seen as a powerful disruptor of social hierarchies - as well as an offering an insight into the author's interest in the subject and arguing why the book as an object holds agency rather than the words within it - before charting key milestones with dedicated chapters on Gutenberg and tracing different patterns of book production and use via various case studies. Although there were times when one wished the author would break up some of the chunky paragraphs, this book is organised by theme rather than chronological events so the chapters can be read in any order you wish.

- 28/04/2022
Report this Review
Leave Review

Delivery Options

All delivery times quoted are the average, and cannot be guaranteed. These should be added to the availability message time, to determine when the goods will arrive. During checkout we will give you a cumulative estimated date for delivery.


Location 1st Book Each additional book Average Delivery Time
Free UK Standard Delivery on Orders Over £25 (2nd Class)     3-5 Days
UK Standard Delivery (2nd Class) £2.99 £0.00 3-5 Days
UK 1st Class Delivery £3.99 £0.00 2-3 Days

Click & Collect / 
Delivery to a Foyles Bookshop


Free Free Click and Collect and Delivery to Store is available for all our shops. Collection times will vary depending on availability of items. Individual despatch times for each item will be given at checkout.
Please wait for order arrival confirmation email before making a journey to collect.
UK Courier* £7.95 £0.00 1 Working Day
Western Europe Airmail** £9.00 £1.00 7-8 Days
Rest of World Airmail*** £12.50 £1.00 7-10 Days

* For courier service please contact the Charing Cross Road store

** Includes Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland

*** We are currently unable to delivery to the following countries - Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ghana, Iraq, Lebanon, Macao, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Saint Barthelemy, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Virgin Island US

Given the unfolding situation across Ukraine, with regret we have now suspended orders placed from, or to be delivered to, both Russia and Ukraine. Thank you for your patience and understanding. 

For goods delivered outside of the UK, the consignee (ie the person to whom the consignment is sent) will be the declarant and importer into the country for which the consignment is destined. The consignee will be responsible for both customs clearance and payment of customs duties and local taxes where required.

Customs Charges - if you are ordering goods for delivery outside of the UK, please note that your consignment may be subject to VAT (Value Added Tax), other taxes, customs duties and/or fees levied by the destination country. Any such charges levied in relation to customs clearance must be borne by you. It is accepted by you that Foyles has no control over additional charges in relation to customs clearance. Foyles recommend that you check with your local customs officials or post office for more information regarding importation taxes/duties that may be applicable to your online order.

Delivery Help & FAQs

A Year of Books Subscription Packages 

Delivery is free for the UK. Western Europe costs £60 for each 12 month subscription package purchased. For the Rest of the World the cost is £100 for each package purchased. All delivery costs are charged in advance at time of purchase. For more information please visit the A Year of Books page.

Returns Information

If you are not completely satisfied with your purchase*, you may return it to us in its original condition with in 30 days of receiving your delivery or collection notification email for a refund. Except for damaged items or delivery issues the cost of return postage is borne by the buyer. Your statutory rights are not affected.

* For Exclusions and terms on damaged or delivery issues see Returns Help & FAQs

You might also like

How Words Get Good: The Story of...
Rebecca Lee
The Publisher: The Life and Books of...
Thomas Harding
American Journalism: A History
Ford Risley
How Words Get Good: The Story of...
Rebecca Lee
© W&G Foyle Ltd