A history of one of humankind’s most resilient and influential technologies over the past millennium—the book.

Stephen King once said that books are “a uniquely portable magic.” Here, Emma Smith takes readers on a literary adventure that spans centuries and circles the globe to uncover the reasons behind our obsession with this captivating object.

From disrupting the Western myth that the Gutenberg Press was the original printing project, to the decorative gift books that radicalized women to join the anti-slavery movement, to paperbacks being weaponized during World War II, to a book made entirely of plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese, Portable Magic explores how, when, and why books became so iconic. It’s not just the content within a book that compels; it’s the physical material itself, what Smith calls “bookhood”: the smell, the feel of the pages, the margins to scribble in, the illustrations on the jacket, its solid heft. Every book is designed to influence our reading experience—to enchant, enrage, delight, and disturb us—and our longstanding love affair with books in turn has had direct, momentous consequences across time.

Revelatory and entertaining in equal measure, Portable Magic will charm and challenge literature lovers of all kinds as it illuminates the transformative power and eternal appeal of the written word.
UK Praise

A Guardian and The Times Best Summer Read

"Alive in equal measure to the magic and the badness of books, Smith... charts the both the history of the book itself and the history of our relationship with it in all its equivocality... Anyone who picked up Smith’s excellent This Is Shakespeare will be familiar with the combination of deep scholarship and down-to-earth wit she brings to her subjects, and Portable Magic continues in the same charming vein. Applying the same methods to a much broader topic with similarly engaging effect, Smith proceeds here with enviable lightness of touch, mingling the serious and the silly as she goes... Rather brilliant."
–Tim Smith-Laing, The Telegraph (UK)

"Brilliantly written… Joyful… 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.” 
–Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian (UK)

“Wildly entertaining… Smith deals smartly with serious questions… This fascinating, slyly amusing book carries an undertow of personal affection for the curious, rectangular, multileaved objects with which we’re so familiar."
–John Walsh, The Sunday Times (UK) 

"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 (UK)