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).



3 thoughts on “Mr. Penumbra; or, How To Do Things With Books

  1. Wrt your last paragraph, are you suggesting that Sloan wants us to read Penumbra like a fantasy novel full of archetypes, aka uncritically? Perhaps that’s my personal bias speaking, since fantasy was my genre du choix in high school and I associate it most with a naive acceptance of worlds/characters/narrative choices as “just the way things are.” That said, uncritical acceptance of an author’s view of the world as “the way things are” can lead one to some dangerous assumptions, not least (in the case of Penumbra) about digital methods as the True Saviour of backwards academics, if only they could see it.

    I’m reading through the articles for this week and it seems like that is the issue that many are wrestling with – an uncritical acceptance of DH as this great new thing for academia, English departments in particular, and the tension between ideals (jobs! grants! tenure!) and reality (one isn’t guaranteed a middle-class existence just because of a knowledge of HTML or how to use Google AdWords). Looking forward to class discussion of this tomorrow.


  2. I would argue that with Penumbra, Sloan is making on important comment, although somewhat lightheartedly, on the often opposing stances taken by DHers in relation to most critical matters (which the articles for this week clearly show). Simultaneously, however, I would argue that Sloan’s use of the fantasy genre (and its uncritical aspirations, as it were) is meant to make fun of the seriousness or shortsightedness with which these same DHers argue their respective positions, particularly with respect to the “narrow” definition of DH which seems to be the instigator in all related discussions.

    Am also looking forward to our discussion tomorrow.


  3. Nice points, Ariel. Yeah, I do actually think that he’s asking us to read this as a fantasy novel full of archetypes. I think the fantasy/quest genre structures the narrative here in ways that aren’t wholly “organic.” As the story progresses, for example, Clay does a lot of cognitive work trying to pigeonhole his friends into archetypal roles and he talks himself into the climactic “reading room” break-in only by referring to the classic tropes: Clay has to go alone because “I’m the rogue in this scenario . . . . [Neel’s] the warrior, [Kat’s] the wizard, I’m the rogue” (159).

    The Unbroken Spine? “A messiah, a first disciple, and a rapture. Check, check, and double-check” (136).

    Does that work for me? Meh, not really. But I’m not wholly opposed to it, either. Clay does also repeatedly establish some critical distance to the Unbroken Spine: “To be clear,” he says in the basement reading room, “I don’t believe in this” (180). That cultish group suffers the worst fate in the novel — they’re revealed as frauds.

    And so I think you’re right in reading the text’s “truth assumptions” as ideological. Since both old-fashioned close reading and Big Data distant reading have only limited successes (and the Unbroken Spine is totally debunked), the novel suggests that quest narratives are still the best way to read the modern world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s