Technology and the Bibliophile

by Robin Sloan

When Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was released, the New York Times ran a nice profile of me and the book, and to fit the book’s themes, the reporter, Jenny Schuessler, decided we should meet not in a conference room, not in a coffee shop, but in a secret library.

We convened on a rainy morning at the Grolier Club, a society of bibliophiles in New York City, where—in addition to chatting about Penumbra—we got a chance to see something special.

There, spread out on a dark heavy table, waiting in a pool of lamplight, was a collection of “Aldines”—books made by a guy named Aldus Manutius circa 1500, back at the very dawn of printing. Manutius features prominently in Penumbra‘s plot. He also features prominently in the history of civilization, because his shop produced the first printed editions of the classics: Aristotle, Homer, Virgil, all those guys.

I’d read plenty about Manutius, and I’d seen pictures of his books online. But I’d never seen one in person, and what I saw at the Grolier Club surprised me.

First. These books were quite small. Pocket-sized. In fact, they were the first pocket-sized editions of the classics ever produced. In fact, they offered the first opportunity for any reader in history to “curl up” with, say, the Odyssey. Think about that.

Second. These books were beautiful. Not beautiful like old medieval tomes—enormous, ornate, illuminated, etc. Instead they were beautiful like… knives. Simple. Purpose-built. Durable. Black serifs punched hard into thick white paper.

Third. One of the Aldines was set entirely in italics, and that too was a first: Manutius’s in-house designer invented italics. To a 16th century reader they must have been stunning—like a special effect. And today, the italics on this screen—they started here. Here exactly. These books.

So I was marveling at all of this, and it hit me:

“I am looking at the iPhone.”

These old books—in their intimacy, their beauty, their innovation—these Aldines were exactly the iPhone of 1500. I mean, they even had knockoffs! In the 16th century, there were totally Android classics, too.

If you had been sitting next to me there at the Grolier Club, this wouldn’t feel like much of a leap at all. These little objects, even 500 years after their manufacturing—they look high-tech. Palpably so. They still possess the same dark density as any of 2012′s most lustworthy devices. What an achievement.

This realization, driven by in-person experience of these books, has stuck with me, and I’ve been trying to tell this story, or a version of it, at every stop along my little book tour this fall. It’s just so clear, and frankly so liberating:

Technology is not some strange new visitor to the bookstore. It’s been there all along, right from the very beginning.

 

Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore) grew up in Michigan and now splits his time between San Francisco and the Internet. For more information about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, visit robinsloan.com/penumbra. You can also find him online @robinsloan and @penumbra.

Related: