Blog 1: Tensions Between Distant and Close Reading in Penumbra

At stake in Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) is the answer to the (digital) age-old question of who has it right, the distant or the close readers? Champions of exclusively one side or the other, however, find that the truth, or at least Penumbra’s, is “like kissing your sister,” in that both distant and close readers have their uses in the contemporary treatment of information. Penumbra makes this clear with two major events: first, Clay inserts the data from a logbook, compiled by Google, into his data visualization programme, which allows him to solve what he comes to know as the “Founder’s Puzzle” (94-95). Second, once Clay understands more of the Unbroken Spine and Google fails to crack the code of the Founder’s (Manutius) codex vitae with all their resources, he tracks down the original Gerritszoon punches, which is the typeset of the codex vitae and, with the aid of his favourite novelist and former member of the Unbroken Spine Clark Moffat’s audiobook, finds that the code was in the typography all along (265-266). Penumbra’s plot thus revolves around a first act of distant reading, then finds resolution in an act of close reading, showing the value of both methods.

While these two events are central to the novel, other, subtler examples also reflect the tensions at work between close and distant reading. Clay represents the medium between both, for instance, but other characters stand in stark contrast to one another. Penumbra is evidently representative of the open-minded scholar, receptive to Clay’s use of technology to distant-read the pattern in the Founder’s Puzzle, while Corvina is the lone scholar, refusing to rely on any other methods but the close reading of the texts. The two women in Clay’s life, Kat and Ashley, also follow the rules of this tensional relationship. Kat, the Googler and data visualization specialist, is the ultimate champion of distant reading methods, while Ashley, the rock-climber, is deeply appreciative of details and thus promoter of close reading. Characters in Penumbra, therefore, also embody these two methodologies of reading.

Finally, even space in Sloan’s novel reflects the tensions between distant and close reading with respect to the two major cities featured in Penumbra: San Francisco and New York. As Clay puts it, San Francisco is “a good place for walks if your legs are strong” (6). The city, with its hills and vistas, gives the impression of a vast space with a unique landscape. In other words, a space to look upon within the context of distant reading. When Clay finds himself in New York with Kat and Neel, however, readers notice the difference in space, as Neel points out to Kate that she “[does not] have enough memory” (128) at Google to model New York. The city simply has too many details for a distant read: it needs to be examined closely, or by a close reading. The fact that Corvina is established in New York while Penumbra is established in San Francisco is thus not coincidental. Even space suggests a tension between distant and close reading. The significant events in Penumbra, as well as characters and even space, among other elements, undoubtedly, promote at once distant and close reading. If Clay’s success offers any insight, it is that fruitfulness is found in harmony between both methodologies. Perhaps, then, that scholars should cut Moretti some slack.


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