My awesome new roommate lent me a book to read a few weeks ago. I’d never heard of it. It sat on my nightstand on top of the stack of ongoing books, but The Husband was out of town, so the stack was hidden behind my laptop screen because I was binge watching Netflix in bed, because that’s how I roll when I’m home alone. Don’t we all? When he got home and I moved the laptop, I realized that this book glows in the dark. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was sitting there just positively screaming to be read. So the next day I read it in a little under eight hours. One should never ignore a book that first comes highly recommended out of nowhere and then reminds you that it’s there of its own volition. That’s always been my experience anyway. But I’m a bit weird about books, a touch superstitious. I have been known to find the dustiest shelf in the most hard-to-reach cranny of a used bookstore, cross my eyes and pick up the fattest book I can find, buy it, and start reading it immediately without even knowing what it’s about. It doesn’t always go well, but when it does it’s the best thing ever.
So, basic rundown (with a couple of very mild spoilers): Clay, a chronically unemployed graphic designer gets a part-time job at a bookstore in San Francisco (where one can’t throw a rock without hitting a graphic designer, by the by). He works the night shift and quickly notices that almost all of the customers aren’t buying from the new releases at the front of the store, but borrowing from the dark and cavernous lending-library-type back part of the store (the backlist, for those of you familiar with bookstore jargon). To alleviate boredom and increase productivity, he designs a 3D model of the store and inputs all these customer’s lending histories. He notices a pattern, that they’re all borrowing the books in the same order, and after looking inside one of the books and seeing only pages and pages of random letters, he figures out that the books (and the customers, and the store) are a part of a puzzle. Enter the bad guys, a shady bunch who come in giving warnings about shutting down the store, saying that Mr. Penumbra has broken the rules and needs to answer to their leader. Fearing some dangerous Da Vinci Code shit, Clay enlists his girlfriend (who works at Google because San Francisco) and his best friend (a tech startup millionaire, obviously), to help solve the puzzle and save his boss. He drags them both to New York City to the headquarters of the bad guys. Turns out they’re not for really real bad guys. The bookstore is one of many such odd establishments all over the world, and the scary gangster types, along with Mr. Penumbra, are actually part of a secret society who have been both trying to solve and also adding more information to the puzzle since the invention of movable type. The problem is that Mr. Penumbra has been pushing to use newer and more efficient technology in the process, and the group’s leader insists that they have to use only what was available when the puzzle was created. It becomes pen and ink versus supercomputers, a clash of the titans, a race to the finish line.
I will tell you, though, that this is far from a perfect book. Sometimes he tries too hard with the old witty quip. And it seems as though every catastrophe has an easy solution, a convenient plot twist. Good ones, granted, but I think it eliminates some of the peril that hopelessness lends. Now, one could say that this is because it’s a debut novel and he’s just getting his sea legs, but that, too, feels like an easy answer, and dismissive. I think it’s more likely that I’ve just read so many books with cliffhanger endings and seventeen fucking sequels that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a story with a tidy ending. Or even a happy ending. Lots of doom and gloom on my personal bookshelf, folks. The convenient plot points do somehow make this book seem really cinematic. I can totally see it as a caper-type movie. With lots of getting ready to go on a mission montages and no explosions and very little running. And with Sir Ian McKellan as Mr. Penumbra.
The crux of this whole story is new technology versus old technology. Books against computers. There’s a little bit of a stereotype at play here, though: most of the people that we meet in the secret society are old (at least at Mr. Penumbra’s San Francisco branch – there are some younger folks in the New York office, but not many). And then these young upstarts with their Google and their cloud storage and their crowdsourcing come along and rock the boat. It’s most likely just a way to maintain his position of power, but I wondered if the leader of the group’s unwillingness to incorporate new technology was actual dedication to the integrity of the process, or simply the stubbornness that comes with age? That sounds shitty of me, but you know what I mean. Grandpa can’t figure out how this newfangled whatsit works, or whatever. We see it all the time, right? It seems to me that that stereotype is largely crap. Almost all the older people I hang out with are just as good with computers as I am and the only archival librarian I know is several years younger than me, so there’s that.
But old technology vs new technology shouldn’t be confused with old vs new knowledge. Old wives’ tales still exist because a handful of them are true. (The same with fairy tales – the good bloody ones, though, that princess nonsense is mostly bullshit.) Look at hipsters with their artisanal, hand-stitched plaid shirts and their free-range mustaches and their organic everything. It wasn’t so long ago that all that stuff was just normal, just how things were. Everyone made their own clothes and grew their own food and some poor schlub fucking copied out the Bible by hand. Which is, of course, not to say that one way is better than the other, that old is better than new. I dig vaccines and cars and the internet. But we have to realize that one is built on the other, and in a lot of ways we can’t go back. We shouldn’t think of them as separate bodies of information. And hipsters shouldn’t think that they’re doing a new and exciting thing, either, just because they’ve got an iPhone in their pocket. Your great-grandma could’ve done all that shit with her eyes shut, son.
For me, this conversation comes up a lot because I want to own a bookstore. “Why would you do that? Bookstores will be dead in a decade because of Amazon and Kindle.” I don’t think that’s true. There are plenty of books out there that can be sold over and over and over again, and they’ve got to go somewhere. Business models aside, paper books versus ebooks is a false dichotomy, and bad argumentation. You can like both. I don’t, but you can. There’s nothing stopping you, you do not have to pick a team. Especially considering the rarity of some books that are now available as digital downloads. That’s the only way that some of us who aren’t librarians or academics will ever be able to see those books. Esoteric knowledge is becoming more and more esoteric, as people and companies increasingly don’t see the point of disseminating information that not very many people will pay for. Money grubbing motherfuckers, choking our evolution. But rest assured, books will never go away.
Books are my one expensive vice. Books about books are like chocolate-covered heroin for me. The Historian, People of the Book, The Name of the Rose, Shadow of the Wind, Codex, House of Leaves, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, The Neverending Story, City of Dreaming Books, The Book Thief – all amazing (and you should read them posthaste if you haven’t, but the Eco and the Danielewski may not be up everyone’s particular alley). Books about bookstores run by secret societies whose secrets are tied up in puzzles in really awesome old books? I don’t even have an analogy for that. Bookstores are magic. They’re like TARDISes, or time machines, or Phantom Tollbooths, or synchronicity engines. And it’s not just the wealth of knowledge and story gathered together in one spot, although that, too, is wondrous (also available for free at your local library). Bookstores feel a certain way. All those vertical lines stacked on horizontal planes, casting shadows in ways that don’t occur in other places (it’s worth noting here that “penumbra” means “almost shadow” or “edge of shadow”). It does something to my brain. Short circuits it, but in a good way. It’s how I imagine actors or dancers feel when they walk into a theater and see an empty stage – pure potential, wrapped in calm and comfort. That shit? That’s magic.