Friday, August 30, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore

The book by Robin Sloan is a wild ride of a crass-free, violence-free, coitus-free, murder-less, humorous, 'unputdownable' treasure hunt mystery set in modern San Francisco and New York and old world "Griffo Gerritszoon serif". The new clerk at a bookstore, a recently jobless art-school graduate and amateur web-designer cum programmer, wonders why the regular customers borrow not the popular titles but only from a 'wayback list' of titles stacked in the back, books with content that make no apparent sense or meaning. The linear quest picks up pace and intrigue involving secret societies, fantasy games, computer geekery (with Ruby programming), more mysterious bookstores with unreadable old books, dungeons with well-lit tables and clamped books, art-world props, prime numbers, pages of description about Googleplex and stenography since the times of Aldus Manutius -- the earliest publisher from Venice. It all ends in a satisfactory if not scholarly whimper, a la the climax of The Name of the Rose (of Eco).

Along the way, we get to meet colorful characters with groovy names like Ajax Penumbra and Maurice Corvina, with bookstore owners who are averse to computers and telephones (leave alone iPhones), sinister overseers professing no harm greater than the burning of books written by authors they need to chastise, with friends (Neel Shah) who became millionaires by perfecting the art of making digital boobs and girlfriends who are geek-programmers working for Google and yearning immortality. The mystery is solved by the ingenuity of an individual brain and not by the servers of Google, who not long ago wanted to digitize all the old world knowledge. A not too subtle message that I don't mind sucking up to.

The book has evoked comparisons with Neal Stephenson and Umberto Eco, which I find overboard. OTOH the book stands as an enjoyable intelligent read with typically work-horse characters whose only role is to carry the mystery forward. There are some great lines ("I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype."; (a girl with a face that) "could be a tough twenty-three or a remarkable thirty-one") but not enough passages of such merit. But then, it doesn't profess to be a literary tome.

I read the book in my Kindle but given the book is about hard-copy books and the pleasant memories it had kindled about my high-school library with dark mysterious corners and dusty deciduous shelves housing titles from the nineteenth century, perhaps I should now get a hard-bound version of the book to say thanks.

[Some trivia: In the 15th century, Aldus Manutius was the earliest and influential publisher in Venice. The "Griffo Gerritszoon serif" is a fictitious font type that plays a role in the mystery and was supposedly invented by Aldus Manutius and used unchanged since then. According to the book a version of it is available in Mac and e-readers; if you scout for it, the closest you would end up with is Palatino or Poliphilus. After a search we gather the "Griffo Gerritszoon" is a combination of Francesco Griffo and Gerrit Gerritszoon a.k.a. Desiderius Erasmus (the sound of a name I liked very much in my younger 'quizzer' days), who also worked for the Aldine Press. Of course, we don't have in real Griffo Gerritszoon but we do have a nice serif font christened Aldus.]