Mr. Penumbra; or, How To Do Things With Books

Teaching Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore again last week, I was pleasantly reminded just how many DH topics it puts on the table: databases (on a Mac Plus, wha?!), data visualization, scripting languages, the rhetoric of code, the problematics of digital vs. analogue information (characterized in part as “Old Knowledge” and “Traditional Knowledge”), OCR, natural language processing, cryptography and the semiotics of text (think Borges’ “Library of Babel”), the limits of computer vision, cluster computing, etc. The list goes on and on.

And, of course, all that is set against a fun backdrop of book history teased up with a plotline about a secret cult of readers, the Unbroken Spine, and their growing collection of encrypted codex vitae.

I like the two parallel “puzzles” that more or less bookend this story. The first is the “Founder’s Puzzle,” a problem that is best solved not by close reading but by data visualization. Its solution depends upon knowing not the content of the books, but rather their physical locations on the store’s shelves. The complementary puzzle at the end is the “big data Google analysis,” a failed attempt to decrypt the Manutius codex but which our hero, Clay Jannon, solves by being a close reader of the textual differences between two different editions of Clark Moffat’s codex vitae. Clay can find an answer only by being an editor — perhaps the closest of close readers.

As with DH, the caveat here is to bring the right strategies to the questions you want to ask. Not every question is answerable by close reading, just as not every question is answerable via big data.

Nonetheless, if there’s a villain in this story, it’s the so-called “First Reader” of the Unbroken Spine: Marcus Corvina. Corvina is the dictatorial overlord of the secret cult, enforcing what he sees as a kind of methodological purity upon the research. Neither computers nor phones are allowed in the reading room, only “paper, pencil, ruler, and compass” (144).  Corvina allows nothing “that Aldus Manutius himself would not have used” (156).

As Corvina says, “It is the text that matters, brothers and sisters. Remember this. Everything we need is already here in the text. As long as we have that, and as long as we have our minds . . . we don’t need anything else” (193). In that sense, Corvina is the prototypical New Critic — the formalist close reader of literature who seeks “to discover how a work of literature function[s] as a self-contained, self-referential aesthetic object” (Wikipedia: “New Criticism”). Metaphorically, perhaps that’s the true “first reader” of any text, the innocent, immersive reader for whom everything IS in the text because the text represents an escape from the real world.

Superficially, then, I suppose the enemy here in Mr. Penumbra is merely dogma. But it can’t be accidental that the kinds of formalist reading that once upon a time opposed theory and that now also oppose DH play such a prominent role. And yet, I’m surprised that we don’t learn more about the reading process itself. Where are the decryption keys and how do they work? How are these codex vitae translated? And how do readers make sense of them? What are the writerly and readerly semiotics that need to be negotiated?

We don’t know. Maybe what’s at stake in this story for author Robin Sloan is picking a middle ground. Making yet another case — neither close nor distant — for how best to read books. Perhaps the telling clue that reveals to us how best to read Mr. Penumbra is to enjoy what Clay himself sees in Moffat’s Dragon-Song Chronicle trilogy: the “prose is fine: clear and steady, with just enough sweeping statements about destiny and dragons to keep things well inflated. The characters are appealing archetypes”: the “everynerd” who struggles to survive the story, the “hero you wish you could be,” and the assorted “pirates and sorcerers” who play cameo roles (199).