The Reading Room

A few school friends started looking up one another when their lives became settled into domesticity or a fixed routine. Did they feel the void or nostalgia somewhat hit them? Perhaps. Within years, a good number of friends from school have been getting together regularly to rekindle old ties.  For those who married in their early 20s or right after leaving school and if their children followed their footsteps, they  have since become grandmothers while those who have settled abroad make regular trips back to visit their aging parents. There are also those who divide their time between home and visiting their children who live away from home. Nostalgia seems to be affecting many of them. After all once upon a time, we were teenagers and that feels like another lifetime.  I wonder if we could be the same people we once were.  I certainly hope that every one of us would have evolved and grown up during these past decades. I would regard these school friends a little more than acquaintances rather than friends.

Occasionally I attend such reunions. When friends ask why I seem to be so busy with my work,   I say I have far too many books to read. I am inclined to find kinship in people who read and I do not find that with these school friends. I do find people fascinating but there are often moments when I’d rather be with a book. While friends find joy in each other’s chatter, I rather hole up somewhere with books and more books. Too many good reads.

Mr Penumbra’s 24- Hour Bookstore written by Robin Sloan is a fable about future of books and friendship. It was  Sloan’s first book and published in 2012. Like the protagonist, Clay Jannon, I am in love with the tangible, the feel of the papers and the smell  and weight of the books, their bindings and  the written words caught between their covers. When Clay loses his job as a San Francisco web-design drone during the Great Recession, he lands himself a new gig working the night shift from 10p.m.to 6a.m. at  Mr Penumbra’s 24- Hour Bookstore. The store has only a few repeated graying customers who walk in  and “check out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Each comes in alone and single-minded about ‘the object of  his or her current ,frantic fascination.’ Strange things are afoot at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay asks himself the question,

Is this a book club? How do they join? Do they ever pay?

One of the job requirements is that he must not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Clay will retrieve them for members only.

“ You must keep precise records of all 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.”

Clay is shown a low shelf where there is a set of oversized leather-bound tomes, all identical except for bright Roman numerals on their spines. These are the logbooks that go back to nearly a century, he is told by Mr Penumbra.  So he spends his time writing about the customers rather than spend his time staring at the forbidden shelves. Clay decides to rope his geeky technophile friends in to figure out what is going on.

Penumbra’s customers are, in fact, exactly the kind of people you’d see in coffee shops, working through one-sided cheese problems or solving  Saturday crosswords with blue ballpoints pressed perilously hard into the newsprint.’

These customers are the members of the Society of  Unbroken Spine that has its code of conduct. The fellowship was formed five hundred years ago. Their Codex Vitae contain the wisdom and knowledge about key elements of life and secret to longevity and perhaps immortality. Through  Kat Potente and Neel Shah, his childhood friend, Clay has access to computers and the latest Google technology to decode the mystery as to what these members of the Unbroken Spine seek.

The author  tells the story with dashes of humour.

Ring ring.

These days, the phone only carries bad news. It’s all “ your student loan is past due” and “your uncle Chris is in the hospital.” If it’s anything fun or exciting, like an invitation to a party or a secret project in the works, it will come through the internet.’
Clay muses,

‘ To be honest ,my life has exhibited many strange and sometimes troubling characteristics , but shortness is not one of them.It feels like an eternity since I started school and a techno-social epoch since I moved to San Francisco. My phone couldn’t even connect to the internet back then.’
Kat feels that life is too short when there is so much going on with the technology world.

‘ I would absolutely, positively freeze my head.”  She tells Clay that she would freeze his too and she reckons in a thousand years, he’d thank her.

Ultimately the story is about fast moving technology, digitalization and the love for words, whether it is e-books or printed version, books are books. No matter how advanced technology progresses, the magic of words remains.  It is the perfect story for those who love books and technology. Robin Sloan used to work at  Twitter click and lives in San Francisco. 

https://lifang-leehong.blogspot.com/2019/02/the-reading-room.html

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