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.

Penumbra.

Illustration by Laura Terry.

There is a jumble of deep questions rattling about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan’s irresistible first novel. What are books? Are they just stories and ideas, or are they in some ways irreducibly physical objects—stories and ideas that lose their power when no longer connected to paper and ink and hot-metal typesetting? For that matter, what are we—are we souls, or are we information, or are we atoms? In an era of ubiquitous digitizing, in which books and music and pictures can all be turned into instantly transferrable streams of ones and zeroes—a fate that may soon await our bodies and brains, too—is human society close to achieving something like immortality? And, if so, is digital immortality anything like real, physical immortality—and should we be happy with it?

Those of us in the tech and media businesses, the engines primarily responsible for our digitized future, rarely consider the out-there ramifications of the work we do. Digitizing all media—making all art available everywhere, to everyone, in a form that can be endlessly copied and remixed forever—represents such a huge change in society that we’ve only begun to grasp the most immediate, and the most pedestrian, implications of the switch.

Mr. Penumbra’s is a fantasy novel, though the fantasy occurs mainly at the edges; most of the story is set in a hyper-realistic version of present-day San Francisco. Clay Jannon, our protagonist, is a Web designer who hits hard times when the start-up he works for—a bagel company founded by ex-Googlers who’d created an algorithm that produced a perfectly circular bagel with the ideal ratio of crunchy exterior to soft interior —shuts down because of “the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century.” Clay’s a sort of Bay Area everyman—tech-savvy, aimless, and possessing of a clutch of brilliant friends with high-powered jobs. His roommate is an effects artist at Industrial Light & Magic; his geeky friend from high school made millions in video game software (he’s the “world’s leading expert on boob physics”); and Kat, the nerdy-hot girl he meets by placing a targeted Web search ad, is a data visualization expert at Google. Sloan himself—a self-described “media inventor” who has worked at Twitter, Poynter and Current TV, and also co-hosts an entertaining blog—would fit right into this pack.

Some things in Clay’s San Francisco are a little off-kilter. Google, here, is a creepily utopian, extremely effective supercompany run by a committee of randomly selected managers who make all its decisions by democratic vote. (The real Google might be better off if that were true.) The computers in this world are all-powerful and free of bugs—everyone is always writing code very fast, and the code almost always works, instantly solving whatever problems people face.

And then there’s the eponymous bookstore. While roaming the streets one night, Clay spots a help-wanted ad in the window. “I was pretty sure ‘24-hour bookstore’ was a euphemism for something,” he tells us. “It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.” But he needs the job, and the store’s owner, the creakily old, mysterious Mr. Penumbra, doesn’t care that Clay has no experience. Soon, it becomes clear why.

In the front of the bookstore there are a few shelves with only a tiny selection of well-known books. Customers sometimes stop by to browse, but few ever buy anything. The only regular is a stripper from the club next door who, amazingly, finds the book she’s looking for—Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs—and then comes back a week later for Isaacson’s book on Einstein. “Let’s be clear: This was incredible,” Clay says. “This was a bookseller’s dream. This was a stripper standing athwart history, yelling, Stop!” … And of course Penumbra’s store doesn’t have the Einstein book, so she buys it online.

The real action in Mr. Penumbra’s store is in the back, where, on several tall, laddered shelves, there are thousands of books that are completely unique— when Clay cracks them open, they contain long, unintelligible strings of characters, and online title searches yield nothing. (Take that, Amazon.com!) Clay calls this section of the store the Waybacklist. It is accessible only to a handful of patrons who seem to belong to a strange kind of book club. Members of the club “arrive with algorithmic regularity,” trading an old book for a new one, and never paying for anything. When Clay and his pals investigate—there are a lot of heist-movie-type scenes of planning and coding sessions—they track the mystery to a monkish order of geeks who have been working for generations to decrypt the hidden message in these books. Now Clay and his tech-obsessed friends have thrown the ancient group into chaos, with some members wondering why they’re bothering to crack the code by hand—why not scan the books, turning the type into bits, and then let computers solve the puzzle?

The debate turns on an idea Sloan comes back to again and again in the novel. When you scan something, are you creating a copy or just a replica? Note that all of Clay’s associates—the ILM roomie, the game designer, the data-viz girlfriend—are experts of a very specific sort: Their work involves building representations of the real world, and they each have different ideas about which factors make for realistic representations. Broadly, they break down into two philosophical camps whose disagreement stands at the center of our transition to the digital age: Call them the physicalists and the informationists. People in the former group believe that there’s something nearly mystical baked into real stuff you can touch. The ILM guy favors practical effects made without CGI, and the book cultists just can’t fathom the thought that there’d be anything worthwhile to study in digital versions of their ancient tomes. The second group, meanwhile, holds no regard for the physical—for them, all that matters in art is data, and if the best way to consume and understand that data is through machines, so be it.

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.

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.

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