Robin Sloan attempts to show the ways in which technology can improve upon our old and outdated modes of reading. But his novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, demonstrates that though Mr. Sloan knows technology, he misunderstands books and bookstores…
Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (288 pages, Picador, 2013)
In the wake of news regarding Cambridge Analytica and Mark Zuckerberg’s continuous apologies for Facebook’s seedy privacy regulations, the world of technology appears bigger and badder than ever. And yet, recent grads continue to flock to the Silicon Valley with what scholar Donna Haraway would call a “comic faith in technofixes”—the belief that technology will “somehow come to the rescue of its naughty but very clever children.”
Author Robin Sloan perfectly captures a certain side of San Francisco’s obsession with new toys and technofixes in his book Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. In a book about reading books, Mr. Sloan attempts to show the ways in which technology can improve upon our old and outdated modes of reading. After all, the written word has always relied upon technology, from sticks that marked letters in the dirt to the printing press. Mr. Sloan believes that reading itself can benefit from technology, as if robots reading on behalf of their owners would “drive knowledge gains”—he writes like an angel investor of new reading apps like Spreeder! And he goes even further: In the novel’s caricature of an archaic literary society, Mr. Sloan aims to show that those luddites from generations past—people who can’t stand Kindles much less keep up with their app updates—share the same basic goals and fears of San Francisco’s tech elite.
But Mr. Sloan misrepresents the Luddites. While the traditionalist old school literati he concocts might not be so different from tech workers, this is only because they are already stereotyped through the eyes of one. (It is unsurprising that Mr. “Sloan’s About the Author” claims he splits his time between the Bay Area and the Internet.) Step outside of the stereotype, though, and the analogy breaks down. Consider the following states of consciousness: the anxiety that might plague a reader as he or she enters a great library or well-stocked bookstore, knowing the impossibility of reading every book, versus the anxiety a CEO feels when he or she sees productivity drop among his or her workers. Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore shows that though Mr. Sloan knows technology, he misunderstands books and bookstores.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore begins on a mythologized Broadway and Columbus at a mysterious bookstore that seems to be a perverted version of San Francisco’s City Lights Books, the bookstore started by Ferlinghetti in San Francisco’s Beat heyday. There are significant differences between the two. While both are situated caddy corner from the strip clubs, adjacent to FiDi and just south of North Beach, and both offer a place to read late into the night, City Lights has one of the best selections in all of San Francisco, whereas Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore has just a couple of books, mostly classics. While the fictional bookstore might have a limited selection, within is a members’ only section, over which our young and savvy protagonist, Clay, is asked to keep watch. The texts in this back section have no discernible stories in them but are filled with nonsensical symbols. These belong to the “Unbroken Spine Society,” a centuries old group that believes that these books contain the key to immortality. These members spend their lives trying to crack the codes that fill the books, but none have been successful. They refuse the help of the Internet, believing that these books are meant to be deciphered on one’s own. When Clay discovers the society, he sets out to use his tech background to discover that which has been impenetrable to the Luddite community. Clay’s innovative and technology-driven approaches to cracking this code ought to show the reader how sometimes, breaking away from tradition can give us new insight into the past. This tension of “old and new” defines the conceptual struggle of the piece.
The members of the Unbroken Spine and Clay’s group of Googlers and techies both seek immortality. However, neither group is interested in reading. Although Mr. Sloan portrays the Unbroken Spine members as aging academic types, the Society is actually oriented towards conserving old books rather than reading or writing them. They are equally, if not more interested in the paper on which books are written than they are in the meaning of the words. It’s telling, too, that one of Clay’s key discoveries in the encoded texts comes from focusing not on the words at all, but on the fonts. A true academic might have aesthetic preferences and beliefs regarding font, sure, but the bulk of his or her study will go beyond this surface level detail. Books, for the Society, are not meant to be read—note that a book with an “unbroken spine” is one that has never been opened. Both the intellectuals and Clay’s friends are involved with the Unbroken Spine for glory or immortality or both—not the sort of thing that the average reader seeks when picking something off a shelf.
The Unbroken Spine Society is interested in reading too much the same effect as the speed reading company “Spreeder.” Spreeder is an app intended to help students, scholars, and regular people read more efficiently. Their website states, “At Spreeder, we’ve worked with the world’s leading experts to make reading faster, easier, and more enjoyable.” Their product offers three goals: save time, be productive, be enlightened. While members of the Unbroken Spine Society would be appalled by the app’s use of technology, their society’s mission does not seem so different. For both groups, books are consumable. And while consumability is a valued trait in technology, it feels strange and forced to apply the same to literature. Consuming and understanding are two different things. But if a book nothing but a hard copy of data that one ingests and then saves in one’s knowledge bin, then the Unbroken Spine Society and Spreeder share the same mission. The Unbroken Spine members seek immortality whereas Spreeder’s consumers seek the next best thing—efficiency.
Clay’s “heroism” in the novel reflects the tech industry’s deep-seated nihilism—Clay himself is not driven to action because he fears death or wants to extend his life indefinitely. A shallow interpretation would make him out to be a Harry Potter, able only to find the Sorcerer’s Stone because he has no interest in using it. But the metaphor ends quickly, because Harry has a reason for wanting to understand immortality—he wants to keep it out of the hands of the magical world’s Hitler equivalent. No, Clay just wants the adventure. Clay rambles, “To be honest, my life has exhibited many strange and sometimes troubling characteristics, but shortness is not one of them.” But why isn’t shortness one of them? Clay’s eagerness and sense of adventure make him the ultimate tech worker as well as an entertaining protagonist. But what is there for him beyond the adventure? Is Clay so busy ignoring the fragility of his own existence with technological distractions and adventurous feats that he hasn’t even considered his ultimate end? Clay might not believe in immortality, but he doesn’t seem to believe in anything else, either. When looking for jobs in San Francisco, he comments, “At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.” If Clay and his wishy-washy moral compass are unconcerned with immortality or with death, readers have to wonder if his easy-breezy attitude is a virtue or a vice. He might not be a metaphor for tech culture, but the same culture that equates speed-reading technofixes with instant enlightenment produces this kind of blindly adventurous spirit.
The similarity that Mr. Sloan draws between the Unbroken Spine Society and Clay’s gang of agile go-getters give good insight into San Francisco tech culture. But it is Clay himself who represents the average tech worker—not necessarily interested in efficiency for efficiency’s sake but along for the ride. It’s not the joy of scalability that brings tech workers in to the office every day—it’s the perks (otherwise, they would work from home). The tech industry, which has no interest in what is good or worth pursuing, only what returns on investment, fosters an environment in which a real concern for what is good is nearly impossible. Clay, with his eroding principles yet love of adventure, shows us that while technology does not necessarily produce efficiency-driven robots, it cannot produce the kinds of scholars or thinkers that Mr. Sloan himself does not comprehend—indeed, Mr. Sloan’s scholars end up being no more than techies in tweed coats. Even if you read more words-per-minute with Spreeder, the technology cannot ensure that you have a better understanding of the books or of yourself.
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 “Why Mark Zuckerberg’s 14-Year Apology Hasn’t Fixed Facebook,” Zeynep Tufekci, Wired.
 “Books by Robert Bringhurst,” A Working Library.