Given the constant flow of events in the world of information and the waves of change confronting librarians, I search for a unifying theme. Can I find something that manages to pull it all together for me? As a law professor I talk to my students about that moment of insight when all of the pieces fall into place, when what had previously been a jumble of unconnected information suddenly shifts into a discernible pattern. Even if the fine details of the final product are unclear, there will be a structure, the subject will make sense. Where is such a magic key for thinking about information?
My search has been wide and varied. Where will the answer be hidden? Will it be found in a TED talk? Does it reside in a journal article by an esteemed scholar? Does it lie in the insight of a working librarian or an information insider? Can the answer be found in the ideas of a futurist like Ray Kurzweil? Should I cling to the beliefs of a traditionalist like Neal Postman?
Or could my Daoist friend be correct when she tells me that seeking such an answer never works? You must stumble across it. You do not find the answer. The answer finds you. Last month part of an answer did. It does not approach the problem in a rigorous scholarly manner, but then if it did, it would never work. Yet it has been of enormous assistance and no small comfort.
Last month I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The book was sent to me by a friend who told me to read it. It is not as if the book is a secret. It has been favorably reviewed and even made one of the New York Times lists of the top books of 2012. I had not read it because the title had put me off and I am teaching an overload this semester, so time spent reading fiction is precious. Still, I never turn away from a book recommended by a friend, so I read it. I read it in a day and a night. It was magic.
It is a work of fiction and it features suspense, mystery and even romance. What caught me was the way it mapped information in a knowing and creative way. Sloan plots a course at the intersection of print and technology. The book takes a birds-eye view of information. The narrative runs the gamut from the origin and evolution of type design through early printing, rare books, libraries, book stores, search engines, the development of computers and the inner workings of Google. The ending is either overly simplistic or hopelessly complicated (yes, it’s one of those books, but the ending is happy) but in any case I am not sure that I understand it. The slim volume contains all of these elements and it pulls many ideas together form me.
One comes away from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store with a sense of coherence. Conveying information is and has always been a process, part sweat equity and part creative brilliance. Advances blend into one another but none finishes the process. The legacy of the past is part of the future. The book lets the mystery of information coding, transfer and categorization spin out at a depth below the text. The book teaches us that fervent pursuit of the question of explaining the nature of information is futile, in truth we do not even know what the question is.
Perhaps the book will not do for you what it did for me. But I am enough of a believer to have sent it to close friends, just as a friend sent it to me. Give it a try. If you are a member of the Google generation, you will learn about printing. If you are a defender of the printed book, you will see into the inner mind of Google. At the very worst, it is a rocking good read. At the best you will join me in seeing something that I may not yet be able to put into words, but which makes me a believer.