Endpaper: Typographical thriller

A mystery that hints at the debt e-books owe the master typographers of the printed variety.

December 03, 2012 11:13 am | Updated 11:13 am IST

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Photo: Special Arrangement

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Photo: Special Arrangement

A biblio-thriller for the typophile lurking inside all of us. What a smart way to tap into our reading zeitgeist, luring in the digital reader who may have stopped caring for the feel of paper and the smell of ink but can’t resist all things typographical. The keys to cracking a mystery surrounding an arcane book in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore lie not in a code made of words or numbers but in typographical shapes. Words aren’t significant here, what matters are the way they look on a page. The design behind a text is the quest to crack the text.

The thrill of the book hunt isn’t bibliographical, it’s typographical. Two worlds meet but don’t collide — they conspire: bibliographers learn to use Kindle as a tool, an old second-hand bookshop turns to a group of computer geeks to give it new life, and Aldus Manutius, master printer of the modern book, interfaces with Google, the master maker of the new digital book.

Several non-fiction books have dealt with the print vs. digital book debate, but Robin Sloan’s typographical mystery is only the second (Lev Grossman’s Codex was the first) in fiction to explore the world of codex and computer. Its young hero, Clay Jannon, takes up a temporary job as a night clerk at a peculiar bookshop after he loses his job as a web designer.

Located in a seedy section of San Francisco, the shop is called, fantastically enough, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. “This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall,” he recounts, “and the shelves went all the way up — three storeys of books, may be more. I craned my neck back (why do bookstores always make you do uncomfortable things with your neck?) and the shelves faded smoothly into the shadows in a way that suggested they might just go on forever.” The kindly, scholarly owner Penumbra steps out of the shadows and introduces himself as “the custodian of this place”. He isn’t very particular about his staff having bookselling experience, but they are required to be attentive to the odd requests of some very odd patrons.

Clay is hired to do the late shift, and his attention is frequently drawn to a set of nightly visitors to the bookshop who want books not listed in the inventory. These books are kept on the topmost shelves of the bookshop and can be taken out only by these nighttime scholars. The books are bound in different ways and shapes, several in leather, and the text inside is unfamiliar, written in some form of typographic code. Clay, of course, can’t resist ‘borrowing’ one of these odd-looking volumes, and turns to his friends, cyber entrepreneur Neel Shah and Kate Potente (who works for Google) to help him decipher the text. When they figure out the first clue, Mr. Penumbra surprises them by congratulating them for having thought of using the computer (data visualisation) to crack the codex of an antiquarian edition.

He wishes he and The Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine had turned to the digital world for answers years ago. ‘Fellowship of the what?’ exclaim Clay and friends, because it sounded “like a band of assassins, not a bunch of book lovers. Are there secret fetishes that involve books?” The cult of the Unbroken Spine is a 500-year-old fellowship of bibliophiles who have devoted themselves to unearthing the meaning and message left by the First Reader, Venetian publisher and printer Aldus Manutius himself, inside his codex vitae, a memoir that recounts in detail how he came to make the modern printed book in the perfect typeface invented by his disciple, Griffo Gerritszoon. With everyone in the 15th century trying to figure out the craft of printing, his secrets of the trade would be damaging if they came out in his lifetime, so he encrypted it.

My god, thinks Clay, Gerritszoon is the type we see everywhere when we look around today: from library shelves to the default typeface on Microsoft docs to the type used by Le Monde , The Guardian and the Hindustan Times (!). Once you close the book, the reader of course wants to know more about Gerritzoon, but he’s as fictional as his typeface — a composite probably of Francesco Griffo, a designer of typefaces at the Aldine Press and Gerrit Gerritszoon, a scholar at the same press. Readers of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore have speculated that the typeface could be anything from Griffo’s Bembo to Hermann Zapf’s Palatino.

Interestingly, it isn’t the old-world bibliophilic parts of the book — the bookstore with the vertical shelves, the cult of black-robed bibliophiles and the beautifully bound book objects that are the most arresting in the book (probably because they’ve all been done so well before).

The best parts are those that entertain us with trips to and inside the digital book world (a new subject in fiction). Clay takes a trip to the heart of Google: its book scanner. He’s amazed at how precise and gentle this monster scanner is with the paper and ink object. Observing a book scan in progress, he notes, “Frame by frame the scanner’s spidery arms reach down, grasp page corners, peel them back…I’ve never seen anything at once so fast and delicate. The arms stroke the pages, caress them, smooth them down. This thing loves books.”

Robin Sloan remarked, in a recent interview, that the invention of printing and the printed book must have felt in its day to be as exciting and revolutionary as the things that envelop our pop culture life now. “They must have felt as remarkable as an iPhone does now, and literally that high-tech.”

What Sloan accomplishes by the end is give the reader of digital books a glimpse of the debt e-books owe to the master typographers of the printed book, and in turn, have the bibliophile acknowledge that new technology can and has enhanced bookmaking, book design, and typography. One other thing you should know about his book: the jacket cover — by Rodrigo Corral — glows in the dark.

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