Smith wittily and ingeniously studies books as objects, possessed by readers not produced by writers ... Smith reads with all her senses alert. She listens to pages rustling when turned, sniffs bindings like a winebibber relishing the bouquet of a vintage, and deliciously inhales the woody vanilla musk of cheap secondhand bookshops; she knows the recipes for making ink, which in the case of one Norse saga involved boiling the berries of an Arctic shrub. Indulgent about the rings left by coffee mugs, she also treasures the spattered sauce on her kitchen copy of Claudia Roden’s Med: books cater to every appetite ... Her wise, funny, endearingly personal book made me want to shake her hand, or give her a grateful, disembodied hug.
... an enthralling, timely, and spirited tour through the history of the book ... Smith’s love of reading comes across throughout Portable Magic, but this is not an idealized account, nor does she seek to romanticize the role of the book in history ... Although Portable Magic celebrates books, it does not praise them unconditionally; rather, it explores their complexities and their sometimes problematic legacies. The resulting account not only testifies to the book’s enduring prominence but also provides valuable context for current debates about the power of certain books — debates that, Portable Magic shows, are almost as old as books themselves ... 16 dynamic chapters ... Smith traces the iconographic template for women reading back even further to the 12th century, moving seamlessly, effortlessly, between eras and locations. This range represents one of Portable Magic’s greatest strengths. Smith weaves together a rich tapestry of bibliographic history through seemingly disparate examples and stories. The effect can be surprising, even at times jarring, but it never feels forced. It is a powerful reminder that much of our own literary culture, novel though it may seem, did not arise within a vacuum but rather derives from the rich history of books themselves ... brims with insights, causing its reader to feel as though it might at any moment burst forth from its binding. Yet it wears its considerable learning lightly. It contains plenty of secrets, but it shares them willingly ... a fine testament to the bibliographic history it discusses, and a remarkable reminder of how books bear witness to their own histories — as well as, in various senses, those of their readers.
... the real pleasure of Portable Magic is its function as a sort of biblio-biography: a portrait of the author in books, or at least a guided tour by a celebrated craftswoman to the tools of her trade ... The thematic arrangement of the chapters makes for some pleasingly giddy pairings ... transhistorical interpretation at its most revelatory. It doesn’t always come off: on occasion, the historical sweep can have a flattening effect ... On the whole, though, it’s difficult not to be swept along by the book’s energy, which is akin to that of the best late-night dinner party conversations. The prose helps...There’s also a sense of humour.
... lively and engaging ... covers an impressive amount of ground with efficiency ... Smith ranges widely across literary history, unafraid to express strong opinions without dogmatism ... Though Portable Magic reflects the work of a careful scholar, it will delight the thoughtful general reader. Any bibliophile will come away from it with a renewed appreciation for books and the central role they still play in our lives.
... a book for people who love books ... With such examples, Smith shows that though we read books, we do many other things with them, too. Ultimately, she argues convincingly, a book is never just a book. And perhaps that's why despite a decade of premature obituaries, books are alive as ever.
... brilliantly written ... a love song to the book as a physical object. In tactile prose Smith reminds us of the thrills and spills of shabby covers, the illicit delight of writing in margins when you have been told not to and the guilty joy that comes from poring over traces left by someone else. It is these haptic, visceral and even slightly seedy pleasures of 'bookhood' that she brings so brilliantly to life.
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.