Emma Smith is Professor of Shakespearian Studies at the University of Oxford. His bestseller This East 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 wrote books on the first folio and in 2016 she was called upon to authenticate a recently discovered copy at Mount Stuart Library on the Isle of Bute (it was authentic). Smith also welcomes Approaching Shakespeare, a podcast series. His latest book, portable magicis a history of reading that explores how books have shaped our social, cultural and political lives.
Did your work on the First Folio direct you towards writing this history of the physical book?
I think that’s probably true. And my investment in how this book has been transformed from a fairly normal product of the print market into this storefront icon. I was really interested in thinking about this book in the history of libraries and book collecting and the values these practices placed on books.
portable magic is about the power of books but also about how we can overvalue them. Were you aware of this tension while writing it?
I was trying to toe a line of acknowledgment of the amazing work that books do in our lives and point out some of the ways we let it overstate their importance. The guy who cut infinity joke in half on Twitter to make it easier to carry was treated as the woman who trashed the cat. There was the most terrible stacking.
We sometimes lose sight of the fact that books are a form of technology – an old but enduring innovation.
I think the technology of the book is probably its most important feature, because it establishes it as a sort of interface between us and the content. This interface has evolved, but in some ways it has remained remarkably constant. I quote Martial in the 1st century CE, saying how books were more practical than scrolls because you could hold them with one hand. Now if you gave Martial portable magic, he would know exactly what this technology was and how to use it. The basic technology has not changed for 2,000 years. There has been a lot of talk about e-books and how they would kill the book or turn into fascinating multimedia objects, but in reality none of these things happened. Kindles are very similar to books in terms of format and size and what they are meant to do. They did not revolutionize 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 read?
One of the things that always scares me with DVD box sets is the number of minutes left to watch. It’s a good thing our shelves don’t have this feature, because it would mean more than our lives. I try not to collect books for the purpose of amassing a particular type of physical object: all editions of a particular book or all first editions of a particular author. I’m not completely successful here. I keep buying editions of The natural history of Selbornewhich is a book that I love.
Do we know what books were on Shakespeare’s shelves?
No books, surprisingly, were listed in Shakespeare’s will, and we have never found a book that was agreed to belong to him. We know his favorite books – Golding’s translation of Ovid in particular – and it’s hard not to think he had his own copy of Metamorphoses. Bigger and more expensive books like the one from Holinshed Chronicles he may have accessed elsewhere. He has a certain appreciation for the culture of the book, as when Lady Capulet describes Paris as a “beautiful volume”, annotated and in need of a new binding.
One of the most disturbing chapters of the book deals with the binding of books in human skin…
It’s really awful. It is the dark side of the very specialized and fetishized collection which particularly marks the 19th century. Anthropodermy, as it is called, tends to be practiced either on medical books or on criminal books. There aren’t many copies in the UK, but one is in Bristol and it’s the story of a murder and it’s partly bound as the hanged murderer. This item is really Madame-Tussauds, chamber of horrors stuff.
You taught during the pandemic. How has the way your students use books changed over this time?
I empathize with my students when the libraries at Oxford closed due to the pandemic, as it was such a complete disruption of my world. For them it wasn’t so much – more than I had imagined, they had already made the switch to e-books and online research, and were actually appreciating that closing the library made more things available in digital form. So yes, that has completely changed. But students still like to own books in which they can write and annotate: it’s borrowing books from the library that they are no longer in love with.
What books are on your bedside table?
After writing about how much we use our books to say something flattering about ourselves, I became extremely embarrassed by this question. So Unvarnished: Ed Buscombe’s book on Researchers, a western that has been on my mind for years; Jenni Fagan’s Extraordinary Novel luckyboothand a copy, as always, of Gilbert White The natural history of Selbornein a paperback edition with illustrations by Clare Leighton.
What do you read for pure pleasure?
All sorts of things. I love a new novel by Ali Smith or Kate Atkinson. I love to read crime novels, I go back to Margery Allingham or Dorothy Sayers. I always have a lot of books on the road.
What book would you give to a 12 year old?
Maybe it’s desperation advice, suggesting the books you loved at that age, but I loved Asterix. A 12-year-old might feel like the books were beneath them, but I think Asterix is really witty, funny, and smart. I think bringing a child into graphic fiction is a very good thing.