I have mixed feelings with stories that pit traditional books vs. modern technology. I grew up in the Silicon Valley—Apple headquarters just a jog from my childhood home, dad’s work at Google, friends majoring in computer science or skipping college for startups in tech venture capitalism—I’m familiar with it, okay?
No. I, the only humanities career-intended among my friends, am not bitter.
I am defensive about books—it’s a mentality from holding out what feels like a last stand against a computer reality. But I’ve gotten used to it. In facing the oncoming wave of Silicon Valley’s tech, I’ve normalized myself to my friends’ conversations about the tech industry and the new frontier of artificial intelligence, machine learning and—an idea that is shockingly old-school—immortality.
Search ‘immortality’ with ‘Silicon Valley’ and you’ll find giants of tech deeply invested in companies and startups fixated on this age-old quest. There are people freezing their heads and a whole lot more putting money to anti-aging remedies. For such a fresh and innovative industry, I would have thought that such an enterprising industry would have similarly innovative goals, but immortality? Heck, even Adam and Eve had their story with Tree of Life vs. Tree of Knowledge. Bella Swan, Emperor Palpatine and Voldemort all took a swing at it. (Guess which one was successful? 😉 ) But it’s been repeated in literature a million times over. So why are we doing this rodeo again?
So I turned to something that hit the middle line: a fiction book about technology.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
- nine word summary: Clay and company disprove book cult using technology. #SorryNotSorry
- moral of the story: Steal books. Don’t steal fonts.
- best quote: “Bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it.”
Narrator and protagonist, Clay Jannon, (whose name I suspect is a nod to Garamond font’s creator) introduces us to the bookstore and the eponymous Mr. Penumbra. The book wastes no time setting us up in San Francisco’s West Coast of computer technology in contrast with our traditional, East Coast bookish cult in the Unbroken Spine that Clay hacks.
The novel puts forth this narrative: Modern technology expedites, allowing us to achieve more within a set amount of time, primarily mortality. Clay’s romantic interest, Kat Potente, is frustrated with this limitation, obsessing over the “dream of immortality”(59)—the same promise of the Unbroken Spine. The surname, Potente, echoes resemblance to Latin potens- or posse (think: potential), signifying Kat as the embodiment of human capability and greater capacity.
N.B., Latin: Consider “cabbage” as an infinitive verb that magically conjugates itself, i.e. English: “I cabbage, I can cabbage, I was able to cabbage, I will be able to cabbage, etc.” = Latin: “cabbage, possum cabbage, poteram cabbage, potero cabbage, etc.”
Nevertheless, this common goal between Kat and the Unbroken Spine suggests that immortality remains the holy grail in the search for knowledge—the only difference is the route taken. We’re used to our villains and heroes seeking immortality, but in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, it falls flat. While I nod off Captain Jack Sparrow’s search for immortality as an individual character quirk and desire, I’m just not quite convinced enough to commit an entire computer venture the way Kat is.
Kat tries to explain her fascination with immortality to Clay but similar to Clay, I’m just not buying it. It’s implied immortality is something we just want to do more. Gimme, gimme that—with all the positive things that come with it.
But I don’t think we’ve come to a conclusion decision against the negatives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against extending life. I think it’s great if we could all live to 2931 years old and still look like Legolas in LOTR. But even Legolas eventually sailed across the waves and that is something close to death for elves.
Do you really want to live forever? Forever, forever? Have we even decided if the universe is forever? Because I’m all for throwing a viewing party to watch the end of Earth, but the universe? Has “Doctor Who” even covered that yet? Don’t tell me, I’m not caught up yet.
So while I’m already uncertain if this is a goal worth going after, I’m further disappointed by the ending. Ultimately, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore portrays immortality as the preservation of an individual’s work in the future, still #relevant. Kat’s dismay is apparent, “Don’t call that immortality” (278).
I feel ya, girl.
This portray of immortality was nothing I hadn’t read before and perhaps Clay was too relatable in his nonchalance. But the novel’s saving grace is the same “secret weapon, […] passport, […] get-out-of-jail-free card” as Clay’s roommate, Mat: “Mat makes things that are beautiful”(28). No, immortality is not resolved, but the beauty comes in what is achieved along the way—a bridge between technology and books, an underground society, a vibrant world of writers and creators and hackers, and did I mention the hardcover glows in the dark?
I do love this book so check it out and let me know what you think! But that “Ad Libris” sign that Mr. Penumbra posts! (Ad takes accusative, thus it ought to be “ad libros.” There is more but I must stop, else I become a Roman guard of Monty Python.) Read it! And if you have or do so sometime in the future, let me know what you think. Do you want immortality?
[aside: I thought I would start talking about the books I’m reading since they tend to have much more active and interesting lives, thus begins the series in which I geek out over literature and books #geeklove? #litlove #booklove? name TBD. Let me know if you like more of these type of book blog posts. I’m not interested in doing reviews at the moment, but more on discussing the themes of different books? We’ll figure it out.]