Inside the Bookstore Full of Unreadable Books

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 5 2012 11:16 PM

Scanners

The heroes of this entertaining first novel, set in Google’s backyard, go to battle about whether books are precious objects or simply collections of data.

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Sloan depicts the two camps as being at war, which corresponds to how many of us think of the battle in real life. Ever-improving technology forces us to take a stand on the question of digitizing, and we have a tendency to become indignant about our choices: You want to read the new J.K. Rowling? You’ve got to decide whether you’re getting it on Kindle or paper, and there are thorny politics on either side. If you choose Kindle, are you killing bookstores? Are you abandoning literary culture? Choose paper and you look like you’re living in the past. How can you be so blind to the obvious convenience of digital text?

I’m a tech-obsessed fellow; I’ve argued loudly and shrilly for informationism in these pages. Many readers—readers of an online magazine, let’s note—regularly take me to task for this view. Every single time I write about Amazon, the Kindle, the iPad, and a constellation of related topics, I hear some version of the claim that even if you could perfectly mimic the information in books, technologists will never replicate the feeling of reading a book. This argument inevitably sounds silly to me—if the only way you can defend books is by describing how you react to the smell and physical sensation of paper against your fingertips, you’re no longer talking about books as much as you’re talking about nostalgia.

While Sloan seems justifiably fascinated by this disagreement and the process of scanning and copying, in the end he seems to skirt many of the novel’s questions about how digitizing art changes it. Instead, when Clay does find an answer to the puzzle of the secret society’s books, it relies on a gimmick, one I thought too cheap (even though it does involve fonts—the book, by the way, is a must-read for typography nerds). And then Sloan ends in a rush to tie up loose ends, a move that seemed at odds with Mr. Penumbra’s more thoughtful first half.

Author Robin Sloan
Author Robin Sloan

Photograph by Helena Price.

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It’s unfortunate that Sloan misses an opportunity to get at some way the two camps might bridge their differences. My own suspicion is that, as we dive further into the digital world, we’ll settle somewhere in the middle on the question, with each side accommodating the other side’s views. The physicalists are going to give in on books—they’ll have to, the future is stacked against them. But I wonder if we informationists might find ourselves surprised at how stubbornly physical art remains. The truth is that when I read a book on my iPad, it feels different from reading it on a Kindle; there are physical, technical differences between the two devices, differences that affect what I choose to read on either. (For me, for now, it’s magazines on the iPad, books on the Kindle.)

This seems like a small point, but it’s the tip of a larger one. However compact and abstract art becomes, the physical is always going to matter. Where you held on to your dog-eared copy of The Catcher in the Rye, your kid might store his beat-up first-generation Kindle, because irrational as it seems, that device contains what he felt when first reading Salinger. We can’t escape the real world. To be blunt about it: Nothing designed by the world’s leading expert on digital boobs could ever hold a candle to the real thing.

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Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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