Emma Smith: ‘Books do extraordinary work, but we can overstate their importance’ | Books

Emma Smith is professor of Shakespeare studies at Oxford University. Her bestselling book This Is Shakespeare was praised by the likes of Hilary Mantel and Margaret Drabble. She is an expert on Shakespeare’s First Folio – the 1623 first collected edition of his plays, and one of the most valuable books in the world. She has written books about the First Folio and in 2016 was called upon to authenticate a newly discovered copy at Mount Stuart library on the Isle of Bute (it was genuine). Smith also hosts Approaching Shakespeare, a podcast series. Her latest book, Portable Magic, is a history of reading that explores the way books have shaped our social, cultural and political lives.

Did your work on the First Folio steer you towards writing this history of the physical book?
I think that’s probably true. And my investment in how that book was transformed from a fairly normal product of the print marketplace into this glass-case icon. I was really interested in thinking about that book in the history of libraries and the collecting of books and the values that these practices put on books.

Portable Magic is about the power of books but also about the way we may over-valorise them. Were you aware of this tension as you wrote it?
I was trying to tread a line of acknowledging the extraordinary work that books do in our lives and pointing out some of the ways we let that overstate their importance. The guy who cut Infinite Jest in half on Twitter to make it easier to carry was treated like the woman who put the cat in the bin. There was the most terrible pile-on.

We sometimes lose sight of the fact that books are a form of technology – an ancient but enduring innovation.
I think the technology of the book is probably its most important feature, because it establishes it as a kind of interface between us and the content. That interface has evolved, but it some ways it has remained remarkably constant. I quote Martial in the 1st century of the Christian era, saying how books were more convenient than scrolls because you could hold them with one hand. Now, if you gave Martial Portable Magic, he’d know exactly what that technology was and how to use it. The basic technology hasn’t changed in 2,000 years. There’s been a lot of discussion about ebooks and how they would either kill off the book or develop into fascinating multimedia objects, but actually neither of these things have happened. Kindles are very like books in format and size and in what they want to do. They haven’t revolutionised the interface. They want to be books.

How do you resist what the Japanese call tsundoku: the practice of buying more books than you could ever possibly read?
One of the things that always frightens me about DVD box sets is when it says how many minutes there are to watch. It’s a good thing our shelves don’t have that functionality, because it would add up to more than our lifetimes. I try not to collect books in order to amass a particular kind of physical object: all the editions of a particular book or all the first editions of a particular author. I don’t completely succeed here. I do keep buying editions of The Natural History of Selborne, which is a book I love.

Do we know what books were on Shakespeare’s shelves?
No books, surprisingly, were listed in Shakespeare’s will, and we’ve never found a book agreed to have been owned by him. We do know his go-to books – Golding’s translation of Ovid in particular – and it’s hard not to think he had his own copy of Metamorphoses. Bigger, more expensive books such as Holinshed’s Chronicles he may have accessed elsewhere. He has some appreciation of book culture, as when Lady Capulet calls Paris a “fair volume”, annotated and needing a new binding.

One of the more disturbing chapters in the book deals with the binding of books in human skin…
It’s really horrifying. It’s the dark side of the very specialised and fetishised collecting that marks the 19th century in particular. Anthropodermy, as it’s called, tends to be done on either medical books or criminal books. There aren’t many copies in the UK, but one of them is in Bristol and it’s the account of a murder and it’s partly bound in the skin of the hanged murderer. That object is really Madame-Tussauds, chamber-of-horrors stuff.

You’ve taught through the pandemic. How has the way your students use books changed in this period?
I was commiserating with my students when the Oxford libraries closed for the pandemic, because it was such a complete disruption to my world. For them it wasn’t so much – more than I had realised, they had already made the shift to digital books and online research, and actually enjoyed the fact that library closure made more things available digitally. So yes – this has changed utterly. But students still enjoy owning books they can write in and annotate: it’s borrowing library books they have fallen out of love with.

What books are on your bedside table?
Having written about how much we use our books to say something flattering about ourselves, I’ve become enormously self-conscious about this question. So, unvarnished: Ed Buscombe’s book on The Searchers, a western with which I’ve been preoccupied for years; Jenni Fagan’s extraordinary novel Luckenbooth, and a copy, as always, of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, in a paperback edition with illustrations by Clare Leighton.

What do you read for sheer pleasure?
All kinds of things. I love a new novel by Ali Smith or Kate Atkinson. I love reading crime fiction, I go back to Margery Allingham or Dorothy Sayers. I always have lots of books on the go.

What book would you give to a 12-year-old?
This may be a council of despair, suggesting the books that you enjoyed at that age, but I loved Astérix. A 12-year-old might feel the books were beneath them, but I think Astérix is really witty and funny and smart. I think getting a child into graphic fiction is a really good thing.

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