Friday, December 04, 2015

Life is Like a Bagel in "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore"

Clay Jannon is the narrator of the novel Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Clay begins his story with his regrets over the ideal job that he no longer had:
"The job I lost was at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, which was based not in New York or anywhere else with a tradition of bagel-making but instead here in San Francisco. The company was very small and very new. It was founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle. ...
"But then the economy took a dip, and it turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they’re sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt." (p. 2-3)
Platonic bagels or ordinary bagels: the book starts out with the divide between the ideal and the achievable. This divide informs much of the thought in the book, although the actual subject matter is quite different from bagels.

The real subject of the book is the narrator's next job in the strange and surreal bookstore run by a mysterious Mr. Penumbra, patronized by some very strange readers and a few ordinary customers, and owned by a still-more ungraspable corporation owned by a still stranger CEO. An ambitious woman who works at google, the ability of google to scan and analyze even very obscure books and data, a repository of rejected or lost museum items, and a number of fascinating and eccentric characters make this book totally fascinating.

The plot is very convoluted, as the narrator and his friends try to discover the secret of information that is encoded in the mysterious and unreadable books on the very high bookshelves of Mr. Penumbra's store. I was delighted when the key turned out to be the historical figure Aldus Manutius, who has fascinated me for a long time. In particular, I have always been amazed by the parallels between the humanist printer Aldus (who lived from around 1452-1515 and made a gigantic contribution to the new printed-book paradigm) and the Internet (with its gigantic shift in attitude towards those printed books).

Says Penumbra "Aldus Manutius gathered scribes and scholars at his printing house in Venice, and there he manufactured the first editions of the classics. Sophocles, Aristotle, and Plato. Virgil, Horace, and Ovid."

Clay responds: "Yeah, he printed them using a brand-new typeface, made by a designer named Griffo Gerritszoon. It was awesome. Nobody had ever seen anything like it, and it’s still basically the most famous typeface ever. Every Mac comes preinstalled with Gerritszoon." (p. 133).

In actual history, Aldus's type designer was named Francesco Griffo whose best-remembered invention was italic type. In Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, parallels, both fictional and not, between Aldus's accomplishments and those of google seemed to me very thrilling -- way better than the ideas I thought up years ago, before google emerged. The fiction in the book goes much further than mere parallels, describing a search for the original moveable type that would have been used in Aldus's workshop in Venice. A lost and coded book by Aldus himself also plays a major role in the plot. Both Clay's quest for these fictional items and the underlying interest in matters of design and media throughout the novel are wonderfully inventive.

Old Technology-New Technology:
"With her standing right next to me, her elbow poking me just the tiniest bit, I basically feel drunk. I’m trying to formulate my next steps. I’ll recommend Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Penumbra has a copy— I’ve seen it on the shelf. It’s huge." (p. 50). The book in the photo is my copy of an earlier edition of Tufte's book.
I don't intend to summarize the very complicated plot of the book, or its wonderful backdrops in San Francisco, New York, Google Headquarters, and several other locations. I enjoyed many details, particularly the food that Clay eats. Like his friends, co-workers, roommates and other people he meets, and like the technology he describes, his meals and snacks are always very typical of the twenty-first century. Examples:
"We are in the Gourmet Grotto, part of San Francisco’s gleaming six-floor shopping mall. It’s downtown, right next to the cable-car terminus, but I don’t think tourists realize it’s a mall; there’s no parking lot. The Gourmet Grotto is its food court, probably the best in the world: all locally grown spinach salads and pork belly tacos and sushi sans mercury."(p. 57)
Free lunch at the cafeteria at Google headquarters:
"The food is, as promised, fantastic. I get two scoops of lentil salad and a thick pink stripe of fish, seven sturdy green lines of asparagus, and a single chocolate-chip cookie that has been optimized for crispiness." (p. 83). 
And in New York City:
"Now we are sitting quietly on a bench in the skinny city. The sky is getting light, but we’re cloaked in shadows, breakfasting on perfectly imperfect bagels and black coffee, trying to look normal." (p. 124).  
For more about Aldus see this article commemorating the 500th anniversary of his death: "A Tribute to the Printer Aldus Manutius, and the Roots of the Paperback." From the article: "Most of Aldus’s contributions to the art of printing are more subtle, like that first italic typeface, which he created with the type cutter Francesco Griffo, a shadowy fellow who broke with Aldus acrimoniously and then slugged a man to death with an iron bar before reputedly meeting his own demise at the end of a hangman’s rope."

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