The Font Of Knowledge

Robin Sloan’s debut novel, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” is set, as you might expect, in “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” a fringe bookstore next to a neon-lit strip club in a seedy neighborhood.

It’s like Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code,” only tailor-made for bibliophiles.

Run by a single individual, the sagely and blue-eyed Mr. Ajax Penumbra, it’s as indie as indie gets. Beginning with its strikingly irregular dimensions, there’s nothing regular about his shop.

Absurdly tall for its girth, it’s open round the clock—but ever hardly sees a customer, at least, not during the daylight hours.

When the resourceful and affable, Rhode Island School of Design-trained designer, Clay Jannon, takes up a job as a night clerk there, he discovers that its true identity isn’t that of a bookseller.

It’s rather an incognito private library that’s the front for a secret bibliophilic cult called the “Unbroken Spine,” which traces its roots to the 15th century.

Behind its standard shelves, soar stalagmite stacks of forbidden volumes with one-word titles, their pages, each a maze of encrypted text.

Jannon has a quirky set of duties, one of which is that he “may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes.” He has only to “retrieve them for members.”

The other is that he must “keep precise records of transactions. The time. The customer’s appearance. His state of mind. How he asks for the book. How he receives it. Does he appear to be injured. Is he wearing a sprig of rosemary on his hat. And so on.”

To stave off boredom during the course of his graveyard shift, he builds an interactive, 3D model of the bookstore. And that becomes his ticket to the secret society’s well-camouflaged headquarters on New York’s Fifth Avenue.

In a cold, dark, subterranean vault underneath, it houses a collection of encoded titles, whose existence not even Google knows about. Each of them is one of a kind. Its prized possession, however, is the MANVTIUS: a heavy, black, leather-bound tome, of which there’s only one copy.

It’s the work of Aldus Manutius, a Renaissance publisher, who founded the Aldine Press, in Venice. While he’s a figure from history, his role as the founder of this secret fellowship is fictional.

Believed by its members to contain the recipe for immortal life, they’ve toiled over it, over ages, in hopes of deciphering it. With the help of a nifty, cardboard-made, D.I.Y. book scanner, he scoops up all its contents onto a flash drive.

He has enviable support. Neel Shah, his childhood best friend and now, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, backs his mission with his moolah and his loyal friendship. No Luddite, the forward-thinking Mr. Penumbra himself, gives him carte blanche.

Kat Potente, his girlfriend for a brief period, who’s dedicated, alas, to her work at Google, brings over the titan’s computing wizardry to the project and a dream squad of its version of Bletchley Park geeks get to work on the 500-year-old codex vitae.

Sloan takes a nuanced approach to the relationship between modern computational technology and the human brain. He doesn’t trumpet the triumph of one over the other, but recognizes their partnership in unlocking secrets, ancient and new.

He never doubts the data-crunching power of Hadoop or the granularity and sweep of Google Street View’s three-dimensional vistas. But he doesn’t discount the role of intellectual agility and inventiveness in problem-solving either.

Sloan takes a dig at folks, who run the Internet: “Books: boring. Codes: awesome.”

Jannon’s quest to solve the riddle takes him to a string of more oddball locations: the postage stamp-size “California Museum of Knitting Arts And Embroidery Sciences,” Google’s Mountain View campus, and the “Consolidated Universal Long-Term Storage,” a U.P.S.-like warehouse of historical artifacts just outside of Enterprise, Nevada.

Sloan tells his story with brio, using intelligible tech-speak, cleverly. When Jannon tells Mr. Penumbra that he’s used been able to solve a puzzle that’s mystified for ages, in 24 hours, he reacts with “the strangest expression on his face—the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.”

A fine blend of technology, typography, and cryptology and how they and intersect with publishing, the book is a paean to paper, ciphers, Internet, not least of all, books.

It’s a celebration of the fusty and the nerdy, the dusty and the shiny. Jannon is just as wonderstruck with “Google’s data visualization amphitheater,” festooned with football stadium-size screens as he is with the “ASCENSION TABLE” terminal, a low-tech bright blue monitor, with thick glass, through which pixels peek out.

But what steals the show is a fictional medieval typeface, which he names “Gerritszoon,” after its inventor, Gerrit Gerritszoon. The character is based on that of Francesco Griffo, a real-life colleague of Manutius, who was a medieval punch cutter, credited with inventing the italic type.

The iPhone comes loaded with Gerritszoon. Every new Microsoft Word document defaults to Gerritszoon. The Guardian sets headlines in Gerritszoon; so do Le Monde and the Hindustan Times. The Encyclopedia Britannica used to be set in Gerritszoon; Wikipedia just switched last month. Think of term papers, the curriculum vitae, the syllabi. Think of the résumés, the job offers, the resignation letters.

It’s everywhere around us. You see Gerritszoon every day.

By stocking up the shelves of the bookshop with titles such as Arthur C. Clark’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Aristotle’s’ “Nicomachean Ethics,” Walter Isaacson’s “Einstein: His Life and Universe,” Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Sloan provides recommendations for further reading.


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