Category: MetaBooks

Novel Living: Collecting, Decorating, and Crafting with Books

Cover image for Novel Living by Lisa Occhipintiby Lisa Occhipinti

ISBN 978-1-61769-087-7

“We all know the standard interior decorating practice of adding a mirror to make a room appear larger. Books are mirrors of a different kind; they reflect our values, our thoughts, and what we hold dear, adding another type of breadth to a room.”

In Novel Living, artist Lisa Occhipinti offers a diverse volume that covers collecting, displaying, and caring for your books. A fourth section follows on her previous book, The Repurposed Library, with nine arts and crafts that can be made from books that have reached the end of their useful lifespan in their original form.

Collecting Books

Occhipiniti’s advice for collecting books and creating a library is relatively basic, and will be more useful to someone just starting out than to anyone who works in libraries or already has a book collection. Her advice includes setting parameters for the collection, and a practical guide to understanding the condition terms used for books in order to facilitate buying online.

Creating a Library

Image of the gallery table from Novel Living by Lisa OcchipintiNovel Living presents a variety of creative and attractive display options, though many of them will not be space-conscious enough for those who have a lot of books and need to be more pragmatic about how they are stored. However, the basic gallery table is an example of a display that is both attractive and functional; coffee table books can be exhibited beneath the glass, leaving the top free to be used for practical purposes when needed. In general, the book is beautifully designed, laid out, and photographed, and this is particularly evident in this section, which shows off Occhipinti’s beautifully crafted book dioramas, and artfully arranged shelves. However, the attention to art occasionally overshadows the book’s more practical aspects. For example, the book lacks an index.

Preserving and Conserving

For those who love old books, or have a habit of rereading their favourites until they fall apart, the third section offers a do-it-yourself guide for rehabilitating books that have been loved too well. With clearly illustrated instructions, Occhipinti demonstrates how to replace endpapers and covers, which can be an ideal solution for preserving beloved books with sound book blocks, but failing exteriors. Other projects in this section include creating a slip case, and tipping in a loose page.

Although Occhipinti’s basic conservation tips are generally sound, she very briefly mentions brushing mold off a book with a stiff brush. However, dealing with moldy books is more complicated than a single sentence can encompass. It fails to cover the difference between active and inactive mold, and makes no mentions of health and safety precautions. Mold removal is not really a conservation project suited for beginners, since improper mold removal can be hazardous to your health, or spread through your home or book collection if not completed properly. Unless the book has a lot of value, be it historical or sentimental, a moldy book has generally reached the end of its life.

Crafting with Books

Having proved her bona fides as a book lover in the preceding sections, Occhipinti turns her attention to the potentially controversial: books as crafting material. For books that can’t be rehabilitated, or have otherwise outlived their usefulness, Occhipinti’s book crafts offer a second lease on life. Novel Living includes a guide to websites for checking the value of a book before repurposing it. However, crafting makes up a relatively small portion of this book relative to Occhipinti’s previous work, The Repurposed Library. Even for those who cannot possibly imagine cutting up a book, however decrepit, many of the projects in this volume involve scanning portions of the book or cover and using prints, rather than crafting with the book itself.

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More Books for Book Lovers:

Cover image for A History of Reading by Alberto ManguelA History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

On Paper by Nicholas Basbanes

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On Paper

Cover image for On Paper by Nicholas A. Basbanesby Nicholas A. Basbanes

ISBN 978-0-307-27964-4

“Without paper, there would be no printing, one of many instances in which scholars have lumped the pair together as allied technical advancements, with paper usually getting the shorter shrift of the two, especially in the impact they have had on the diffusion of culture.”

After a seemingly endless series of tiresome articles on the death of the codex, some people seem to be slowly coming around to the idea that the paper book might not be finished after all. As the paper and electronic mediums learn to coexist, journalist and bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes brings us a history of paper, the substance that allowed printing and many other industries to flourish. Basbanes’ interest in paper includes both how it is made, and the many and varied uses to which it has been put during its two thousand year history. On Paper delves into the diverse use of paper products from bandages to paper cartridges for guns to toilet paper and beyond while also exploring the cultural significance of the medium. Basbanes’ exploration of paper as art ranges from origami to architectural blueprints, and even to the humble sketchbook that made the idea of thinking on paper possible for such imaginative thinkers as Leonardo Da Vinci and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Starting off his narrative with a wide lens, Basbanes examines early paper making in China and Japan, and their modern Asian descendants before tracing paper making to Europe via the Middle East, where it was used for both religion and commerce. He digs up little known artefacts from the history of paper, including the Japanese use of unmanned paper balloons to send bombs across the Pacific to the mainland United States during World War II, which the government and press covered up at the time. However, in the latter part of the book, Basbanes’ scope narrows and becomes more Amerocentric, focusing on early American paper making, the modern tree-based paper making industry in North America, and concluding with a chapter on the paper ephemera of 9/11. Asia and the Middle East, and even most of Europe, disappear almost entirely from view. Similarly, although Basbanes profiles a paper maker that focuses on recycled fibres, the environment does not figure much into his narrative.

Basbanes clearly takes his research seriously, approaching his work as a reporter, conducting extensive on-site visits and interviews with modern paper makers, craft and industrial alike, and a variety of scholars, historians, archivists and librarians with an interest in the medium. His excellent contacts and ability to gain access to private collections and even secure government facilities stand the reader in good stead. His extensive field research includes visiting Japanese and Chinese traditional paper makers, where he even carefully notes who has done the translating for each encounter, since his subjects usually do not speak English. Though the book was published in 2013, Basbanes worked on it for many years before it was finally printed, and his journalism led him to the doorstep of Tony Mendez, who effected the escape of six American diplomats from Iran mostly with fake and forged papers, long before Mendez’s story became widely known through his memoir and Ben Affleck’s film adaptation. Basbanes also pays a visit to the plant that produces the security paper on which American currency is printed, where they allow him to view all but the final step.

I grew up in a mill town, so I already knew a thing or two about paper production before reading On Paper, but I had never given much thought to the creation of paper from materials other than the wood pulp that is the industry standard today. However, early papers, particularly in Europe, were commonly made from linen rags, finally explaining the purpose of the rag-picking beggar in many a historical novel. The general requirement for something to be considered paper is that it be made of cellulose fibres, and many natural sources other than wood pulp fit that criteria. How we make paper has changed over the centuries and millennia, even as we continue to come up with novel uses for it, but our focus is always on the product, and rarely on the production. On Paper is a fascinating work in that it foregrounds the medium and the various purposes it has been put to, forcing the reader’s attention to something which, especially when reading, is generally ignored unless there is something wrong with it. But Basbanes goes so far as to draw attention to the very paper on which his own book is printed, profiling the manufacturer that provides the majority of high quality printing paper to American publishing houses. To read this book is to briefly undertake a fundamental shift in perspective from message to medium.

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Cover image for A History of Reading by Alberto ManguelYou might also like A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

A History of Reading

Cover image for A History of Reading by Alberto Manguelby Alberto Manguel

ISBN 978-0-14-312671-3

“Since the earliest vestiges of prehistoric civilization, human society has tried to overcome the obstacles of geography, the finality of death, the erosion of oblivion. With a single act—the incision of a figure on a clay tablet—that first anonymous writer suddenly succeeded in all these seemingly impossible feats.”

Originally published in 1996 in the early days of the digital age, A History of Reading has been rereleased, but not significantly updated, with a new introduction by the author. Alberto Manguel’s history delves into many diverse and even tangential subjects, from the invention of writing (and thereby reading) to the invention of printing, from a history of how reading has been taught to a history of reading aloud, traveling from Greece to Japan in the process. Some of these topics relate more closely to writing or publishing than to reading itself, but really, all are inextricably intertwined, as Manguel aptly demonstrates.  Each topic is illustrated with vivid historical examples and case studies, though Manguel also draws frequently on his own personal history of reading. Some readers may find these parts dry, if they don’t care about his personal reading, or perhaps even pretentious, since his own reading is both prodigious and multilingual. Personally, I found these sections interesting precisely because they differed from my own unilingual experience, and because I didn’t find Manguel to be either condescending or prescriptive about how others read. In fact, he rages against prescriptive dictates, chafing at categories, and deriding the practice of designating certain books as only being appropriate for a particular audience

Though Manguel has not updated his text to extend beyond the CD-ROM that was the height of reading technology at the original time of writing, the short introduction at the beginning of this new edition makes his feelings on the subject abundantly clear. Referencing The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he writes, “Frollo fears that the new technology will annihilate the preceding one; he forgets that our creative capacities are prodigious and that we can always find use for yet another instrument. We don’t lack ambition.” In short, we should, as we have always done, choose the format best adapted to each individual context. Perhaps because he delves so far into the past and covers such a broad expanse of history, the absence of the last twenty or so years doesn’t seem all that significant in the grand scheme of things. In a later chapter, discussing the invention of the printing press, Manguel dryly notes, “”it may be useful to bear in mind that printing did not, in spite of the obvious ‘end-of-the-world’ predications, eradicate the taste for handwritten text.” In fact, most early printed texts sought to emulate the style and appearance of the hand-scribed book, just as e-readers now attempt to mimic the turn of a page on a screen. Manguel observes, “It is interesting to note how often a technological development—such as Gutenberg’s—promotes rather than eliminates that which it is supposed to supersede, making us aware of old-fashioned virtues we might have otherwise either overlooked or dismissed as of negligible importance.” So while Manguel does not directly address the e-reading revolution, there is ample discussion of the subject of new reading technologies throughout history, which in turn serve to illuminate more recent inventions.

Given Manguel’s distaste for the tyranny of categories, it is perhaps not surprising that his own work straddles borders, a little esoteric for some general readers, but insufficiently rigorous and overly personal for academics. The mistake would be to take this brief survey of many related subjects, and mistake it for an in-depth treatment of a complex topic. In his conclusion, Manguel deftly highlights that fact that there could be many histories of reading, and that no one history is definitive. His book is titled, after all, A History of Reading, not The History of Reading (note the indefinite and definite articles that precede each). An ideal history of reading would be unlimited in length, and would contain information that is now lost to history, and photographs that were never taken. And of course, it would be incomplete, since the history of reading is ongoing. But Manguel does manage to both inform and inspire, encapsulating the power and beauty of reading, and the many and varied cultural practices that have grown up around it. If his prose is sometimes a little purple as he waxes poetic on the joys of reading, perhaps we do well to occasionally be reminded exactly how amazing and powerful a tool it really is

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The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi

One for the Books by Joe Queenan

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead

The Strange Library

Cover image for The Strange Library by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Ted Goossen

ISBN 978-0-385-35430-1

“Our worlds are all jumbled together—your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.”

A boy visits the library on his way home after school to return his books and pick up some new reading material. A librarian he doesn’t recognize refers him down to the basement, where his curiosity and quest for knowledge about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire land him in hot water. Entrapped in the “Reading Room” by a bald old man who plans to fatten up his brains with knowledge before eating them, the boy must find a way to lull his jailor into complacency, and escape without leaving behind the sheep man or the mute girl who are also locked in the labyrinth beneath the library.

Libraries are a recurring theme in Haruki Murakami’s fiction, but rarely are they the benign institutions we are familiar with. They tend to have a certain power, but also a certain darkness. In The Strange Library, the sheep man gives voice to what may be the source of both the power and the suspicion Murakami imbues them with: “If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would be the payoff for them?” From this cynicism, Murakami spins a dark and phantasmagoric tale of entrapment and escape. Narrated in a simple, straightforward style that counterpoints the bizarre events, The Strange Library is surreal in the manner of a dream or, in this case, a nightmare. The strangeness goes mostly unremarked within the story and indeed seems almost natural, but when you try to explain it to someone else it sounds completely nonsensical.

This book was first published in Japan in 2005, but is being released in English for the first time, with art direction and design by Chip Kidd who has fashioned it with more attention to form than function. (NB: The edition being published in the UK by Harvill Secker has a different design). Two overlapping cover flaps open up and down, while the pages inside open left to right as usual. The cover flaps need to be folded back and held behind the book while reading, making this slim, trade-sized volume surprisingly ungainly. The text is bulked out with grainy illustrations, and though the chapters are numbered, the pages are not. While the design is interesting, it makes the book somewhat awkward to read. The final paragraph of the book is easy to miss, centered alone on the final page of the book in much smaller type than the rest of the text.  A lot has gone into the visual design of the book, but the attention is more to aesthetics than utility.

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Cover image for The Night Bookmobile by Audrey NiffeneggerThe Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger

 

 

Also by Haruki Murakami:

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books

Cover image for The Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi by Azar Nafisi

ISBN 978-0-670-02606-7

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2014. All quotes have been checked against a finalized copy.

“I found it intriguing that he had suggested not that Americans did not understand our books but that they didn’t understand their own. In an oblique way, he made it seem as if Western literature belonged more to the hankering souls of the Islamic Republic of Iran than to the inhabitants of the land that had given birth to them. How could this be? And yet it is true that people who brave censorship, jail and torture to gain access to books or music or movies or works of art tend to hold the whole enterprise in an entirely different light.”

The story of Azar Nafisi’s latest work begins at one of the local independent book shops here in Seattle, where she was approached by a nameless young man, also an expatriate Iranian. In the midst of this Mecca for books at the heart of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, the young man challenged her, saying that it was useless to talk about books in a country that would never value or understand them in the same way as an Iranian who had faced imprisonment or torture for photocopying thousands of pages from classic works like Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms. The encounter haunted Nafisi for years, driving her to conceive the “republic of imagination,” the land of imaginative knowledge that exists within books and is open, without restriction, to anyone who opens those pages. A place where “the only requirements for entry are an open mind, a restless desire to know and an indefinable urge to escape the mundane.” Nafisi argues passionately for the value and importance of books and “imaginative knowledge” in a society that is more concerned with practical information.

The Republic of Imagination is a peculiar book that combines close reading with memoir and political discourse to create an unusual hybrid work. The literary analysis is rather dry, and Nafisi perhaps assumes too much about our foreknowledge of these works, but she succeeds rather well in the other two realms. As usual, she is at her best when she is framing her understanding of the books in question with her unique personal experiences, writing from the perspective of someone who started on the outside, but has since come in. Indeed, Nafisi’s decision to finally take American citizenship in 2008 is a key part of the story. As a new citizen, she celebrates the power of literature to cultivate an enlightened citizenry, capable of understanding nuance, exercising sympathy, and placing information in its proper context. And as she immersed herself in American history in preparation for the citizenship exam, she discovered than the founding fathers shared her enthusiasm for the role of a well-rounded education in promoting their democratic ideals.

Nafisi’s original outline of The Republic of Imagination called for her to discuss dozens of books. The final version is a somewhat more modest endeavour. The chapters are rather unbalanced, beginning with a one hundred fifty page discussion of Huckleberry Finn. Carson McCullers gets eighty pages for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and The Mute, and Sinclair Lewis a mere sixty pages for Babbit. One gets the sense Nafisi could have written the entire book about Huck, who becomes an almost mythical entity with a life of his own; everything ties back to Huck. The epilogue, not included in the ARC, and estimated at an additional twelve pages, comes in at thirty-seven pages in the finished book.  Not so much an epilogue, Nafisi has shoe-horned in an abortive half chapter on James Baldwin rather than a proper conclusion. What is evident here is Nafisi’s personal connection to the texts in question, and the individuality of each person’s reading. These particular books have spoken powerfully to her, and informed her conception of the American identity, but different books might speak more strongly to others.

Although not every reader will connect to the books Nafisi has chosen to feature here, she makes strong argument for the value of literature in our society. However, freedom allows for everything, even complacency. Just as some citizens of democratic nations are too apathetic to exercise their right to vote, so too they take for granted the value of their other freedoms, not least of all art in all its many forms. Nafisi refuses to bow to “the notion that passion and imagination are superfluous, that the humanities have no practical or pragmatic use or relevance and should thus be subservient to other, more ‘useful’ fields.” It is a paradox that a democratic society grants us the freedom to pursue such passions, but not necessarily the wisdom to value them. Nafisi reframes art as “imaginative knowledge,” which is different from information, but no less important. In the introduction, Nafisi writes, “The way we view fiction is a reflection of how we define ourselves as a nation. Works of imagination are canaries in the coal mine, the measure by which we can evaluate the health of the rest of society.” But really, it is Nafisi who is the canary, and she is sounding the alarm.

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Cover image for One for the Books by Joe QueenanOne For the Books by Joe Queenan

MFA vs NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction

Cover image for MFA vs NYC Edited by Chad HarbachEdited by Chad Harbach

ISBN 978-0-86547-813-8

“Each culture has its own canonical works and heroic figures; each has its own logic of social and professional advancement. Each affords its members certain aesthetic and personal freedoms while restricting others; each exerts its own subtle but powerful pressures on the work being produced.”

In Issue 10 (Fall 2010) of the literary magazine n+1, novelist Chad Harbach contrasted two contemporary cultures and means of making a living as a writer in America; the world of New York mainstream publishing, and the university MFA programs that sprang up in imitation of the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Once a young writer realizes that there is such a career as “author,” they are usually conceiving of the NYC model, whereby writers are paid through an advance from a publisher. But increasingly, Harbach argues, authors actually make their living in the education system, teaching writing or literature at universities and colleges, and in MFA programs. In response to Harbach’s essay, MFA vs NYC brings together a variety of authors, professors, agents, and publishers from both worlds to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of an MFA, living in New York, and numerous other issues that preoccupy aspiring authors. Broadly divided into two sections about the MFA program and the New York writing scene, the essays in this collection range from intellectual to anecdotal.

In the opening salvo of the MFA section, George Saunders argues that “it only takes one good example to disprove the generality” that writing programs are bad, and indeed, some of the contributors experiences sound pleasant. “I cannot imagine another place where a person can take a week off from life because she has an idea,” writes Maria Adelmann, who attended the University of Virginia’s writing program. By contrast, Carla Blumenkranz’s piece about famous MFA instructor Gordon Lish’s philosophy of seduction (and habit of sleeping with his female students) made my skin crawl. The consensus for many writers who feel they benefited from their programs seems to be that the time (and funding) to write, and the community of fellow writers provided by an MFA program, are at least as valuable as the actual instruction you receive there. The arguments against the MFA are still best embodied by the excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s 1988 article “The Fictional Future,” reprinted in MFA vs NYC, where he observes that “writing teachers are by calling writers, not teachers. The fact that most of them are teaching not for its own sake but to support a separate and obsessive calling has got to be accepted, as does its consequences.” However, the collection also frequently addresses the old accusation that MFA programs produce indistinguishable writers.

By contrast, the conflict of the NYC section centres mainly on money and the publishing business. Since most writers cannot make a living from advances and royalties, and these NYC contributors are not partaking of academic funding, their stories often involve being broke, or discouraged by the time it took to get published, and the endless rejection that an aspiring writer is almost inevitably subjected to. The criticisms here relate more the experience of being in the NYC publishing world, and have less to do with the merits of the system than the MFA section, creating a slight imbalance between the two halves.

Though primarily divided into two sections on MFA and NYC, the collection also includes some smaller sections that delve into teaching, among other subjects, and an essay about the inaugural Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest that nods towards self-publishing, which is otherwise not discussed. That these essays cannot be easily categorized into MFA or NYC speaks to the fact that while Harbach’s original conceit is helpful, it does not comprise the full spectrum of writing culture in America. There are intersections and side streets that are not fully addressed here.

All of this is well worth considering for anyone who wants to be a writer, teaches writing, or is debating the merits of enrolling in an MFA program. To call the book rigorous would be a misrepresentation, but is reasonably diverse, giving a varied picture of the New York publishing scene, and the experiences of taking or teaching in an MFA program.

One for the Books

Cover image for One for the Books by Joe Queenanby Joe Queenan

ISBN 978-0-14-312420-7

“When you are young, you think that if you read enough Penguin Classics, you can learn everything. You cannot. You will also forget much of what you have learned and never get to some of the books you always wanted to get to. And you will discover, as Samuel Johnson observed, that not all wisdom is to be found in books. But an awful lot is.”

Joe Queenan is engaged in a life-long love affair with books that began as a means of escape from his unhappy childhood in the Philadelphia projects, which he chronicled in Closing Time (2009). In One for the Books, Queenan examines how that early means of escapism has reverberated through his life, sharing his peculiar reading habits and trends, such as the year he spent reading only short books, or the time that he followed the blurb trail from one dusk jacket to another, reading authors who recommended one another’s work. He regularly and deliberately checks out library books he has no intention of rereading in order to save them from being weeded from the collection, but also asserts that “libraries exist in large part to divert and service cheapskates.”

Every bibliophile is different, but Queenan hands down his opinions about all matters bookish with a decisiveness that does not admit of argument or difference. In fact, he openly mistrusts the opinions of others; when someone raves about a book and offers to lend it to him, he is suspicious, arguing that “lending books to other people is merely a shrewd form of house cleaning.” Although he loves books, he hates to discuss them, both because he is mistrustful of the tastes of others, and because “book clubs pivot on the erroneous, egotistical notion that the reader has something to add to the conversation.” He especially avoids discussing books with friends, for fear that their terrible taste will ruin his opinion of them. His love affair with books is intense, but he builds no community around it.

One for the Books is also very much a cri de coeur for the codex, disparaging audio books for the unwelcome interpolation of the narrator, and e-books for being corporate and convenient but ultimately soulless, lacking the magic and authenticity of a physical book. E-books, according to Queenan, “are useless for people who are engaged in an intense, lifelong love affair with books.” The constant refrain of protest against the hegemony of the Kindle appears again and again: “I do not think you can have this sort of experience with a Kindle,” he writes, and then later, “This story does not work on a Kindle.” So far as Queenan is concerned, books “are perfect the way they are and need no improvement.”

However curmudgeonly Queenan may seem to a younger or more flexible reader, it is fascinating, if sometimes infuriating, to get a glimpse into the ruminations of a long-term bibliophile. The second half of the book is a bit mellower than the first, as Queenan delves into his idiosyncratic reading habits. However, it is not, as the synopsis claims, really a reflection on reading in our culture at large, so much as the role of reading in Queenan’s own life, and his lament that the reading lives of others do not come up to his ideal. Although not enchanted with librarians or libraries in general, Queenan seems somewhat fond of Edith, the librarian at a branch of his hometown Philadelphia library: “Edith herself isn’t too taken with my work. Too cynical, she says. Too snarky.” For the most part, I’m inclined to agree with Edith.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Cover image for Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloanby Robin Sloan

ISBN 978-1-250-03775-6

The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest–not a friendly Californian forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach.”

After college, Clay Jannon worked as a designer for a San Francisco start up that aimed to create the mathematically perfect bagel. But when the recession drives NewBagel out of business, Clay finds himself out of work. Wandering the streets of San Francisco, he discovers a peculiar, three-storey tall bookshop that is open 24 hours a days, and accepts the position of night clerk at this unconventional establishment. The main qualification for this new job is the ability to climb a ladder. The customers on the ten-to-six shift are few and far between, and those that do come in are exceedingly peculiar. Mr. Penumbra, the owner of the book shop, keeps a special collection of books, which Clay is forbidden to look into, which are not sold, but rather loaned to these special patrons, and recorded in detail in a log book. Bored and curious, Clay designs a 3D model of the store that tracks the loans, and in doing so, accidentally discovers the centuries-old secret of the Unbroken Spine. With the help of his Googler girlfriend, Kat, and his tech-genius best friend, Neel, Clay turns the power of the digital age on a mystery that has puzzled scholars for centuries.

Imagine accidentally solving the Da Vinci code with a computer program and a sense of humour. Clay’s efforts to entertain himself on the night shift cause him to stumble over a secret society right under his nose, complete with coded manuscripts, and a mysterious founder who supposedly achieved immortality. If that sounds a little bit cheesy, it is because, to some extent this book is a parody of the fantasy quest, or the code-breaking mystery; Clay makes many joking references to wizards, rogues, and warriors, and is skeptical of the mystery of the Unbroken Spine, even as he finds himself obsessed with it. Robin Sloan includes and uses much of the modern technology that can make mysteries a little too easily solved, from cell phones to Google, and riffs on that simplicity. “Stuff that used to be hard just isn’t hard anymore,” when you have things like Hadoop and Mechanical Turk at your fingertips. Expecting this comedic aspect of the story is important, because otherwise it might seem a bit light and fluffy for a mystery or thriller.

Set in an independent book shop in Silicon Valley, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore embodies many of society’s current anxieties about the role of books and reading in the digital age. But rather than pitting the e-book against the codex, and flogging that dead horse some more, Sloan shows digital and manual technologies working alongside one another, one picking up where the other falls short. Although Clay might never have cracked the case on his own, he is at the epicentre of a group of people who have the varied knowledge and skills needed to solve the peculiar puzzle of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

The current and specific technological references to Google, Apple, Twitter and more may give this book a limited shelf life, but it is a perfect read here and now, and one with the unusual potential to delight computer nerds and book lovers alike.