The Geek’s Quest, or: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan (Computers and Literature in Fiction, 1)

Sure, there have been a few traces of digital humanities and computer-supported literary scholarship in literary texts before, most notably in David Lodge’s wonderful campus novels. There must be more, and maybe some of you can point them out to me. An early example comes from David Lodge’s Changing Places (published in 1975!), which contains an episode where reputed Jane Austen specialist Morris Zapp from Berkeley (a character said to have been inspired by Stanley Fish, of all people), is said to have devised the following scheme:

“Some years ago he had embarked with great enthusiasm on an ambitious critical project: a series of commentaries on Jane Austen which would work through the whole canon, one novel at a time, saying absolutely everything that could possibly be said about them. The idea was to be utterly exhaustive, to examine the novels from every conceivable angle […]. After Zapp, the rest would be silence. The thought gave him deep satisfaction. In Faustian moments he dreamed of going on, after fixing Jane Austen, to do the same job on the other major English novelists, then the poets and the dramatists, perhaps using computers and teams of trained graduate students, inexorably reducing the area of English literature available for free comment, spreading dismay through the whole industry, rendering scores of his colleagues redundant: periodicals would fall silent, famous English Departments be left deserted like ghost towns. . . .” (David Lodge Trilogy, Penguin, 1993, S. 37)

The context could be more positive, and more realistic. But illusory hopes and fears about computers and literature seem to coexist in a nicely ironic way. In any case, the episode from David Lodge is a preciously early but brief appearance of the topic in literature.

Now, Robin Sloan’s Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is different. Cory Doctorow, in his elegant review of the book, introduces it as follows:

“It’s the story of Clay Jannon, a broke ex-high-tech worker who gets a night-shift job in poky, weird bookstore whose highest shelves are stocked with curious ancient volumes. These books are only ever requested by furtive, weird customers who come in the middle of the night and request them by name, and it’s Clay’s job ot scale the rolling ladders that run the length of the shelves to retrieve them.”

This book is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and a lot of fantasy novels rolled together. Only here, deciphering strange books, seeking out hidden thruths, and fighting the occasional bad guy all happens in the context of smart phones, iPads, computers, kindles and kobos, and most of all, sympathetic geek protagonists. It is all about digitization, text mining, parallel computation, crowdsourcing, and data visualisation, and, of course, Google Books. This novel pokes fun at all of this, and not always do the Googlers get their way, but above all it is great fun to read it for anyone even remotely related to digital humanities or the brave new world of the all-digital.

So, I recommend this to anyone having a medium-long train ride or flight before them (it’s pretty short). Load this on your ebook reader — even though it seems the print version has a special effects cover which the otherwise well-done EPUB version certainly does not have; now what is better, print or digital? — and enjoy the ride!


Christof Schöch

Christof Schöch is a Research Associate at the Department for Literary Computing, Würzburg University, Germany. He leads the junior research group CLiGS (Computational Literary Genre Stylistics). His interests are in French and Spanish Literature, Digital Humanites, and Open Access.

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1 Response

  1. Gerard Lynch says:

    Excellent post and on a topic which I’d been wanting to write for some time now.
    Lodge being a corpus linguist by day, he talks quite a bit about such studies, in his 2008 novel Deaf Sentence, a budding Phd student is planning research on a corpus of suicide notes, similar to :
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3500150/
    Although the 1975 reference is indeed very prescient!
    A more recent example would be the typewriter “footprint” analysis scene from Das Leben Der Anderen (2006), after which I couldnt help thinking, why not look at the text characteristics?

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