In a little less than 24 hours, my spring graduate seminar on Rhetoric, Composition, and Digital Humanities will begin (syllabus). I’m not typically the kind of professor who gives his students assignments to complete prior to the first course meeting–it always struck me as a little mean-spirited to bite into what little break we have between semesters. This year, however, I broke form, and suggested to my students that they read one or both of a couple of “fun” reads: Charles Soule’s graphic novel Strange Attractors and Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I may talk later about Soule’s book, which shares some features with Sloan’s, not the least of which is the apprenticeship that form the social core of each, but far more digital humanities folks that I’ve seen recommend Penumbra as the DH novel par excellence. As I finished re-reading it this evening, I thought about why exactly that recommendation is so prevalent.
Not that I disagree. On the surface, though, there’s really only a small part of the book that feels like a recognizably DH moment (whatever that is, I know). I’ll try to do all this without spoiling too much, but it’s the early scene in the book where data from Penumbra’s logbooks are mined and digitally visualized. Digital tools play various roles throughout the book beyond that scene, helping to propel Clay forward, but there’s also some irony in that a microscope and an audiobook on cassette tapes (arguably) play as large a technological role in the book as anything else. To say much else about the relative significance of various tech would be to drift into spoilerville, so I’ll trust you to take my word for this. (Or to argue with me obliquely, at least.)
In preparation for tomorrow’s night class, then, I wanted to be able to do more than simply send to page 94 to read the passage about metadata and visualization. At the risk of making this sound a little like a sophomore literature paper, I browsed some of the more popular definitions of DH, and thought about how Penumbra does or doesn’t reflect them. I do think that there’s a point to be made with respect to technology, and not simply novelty. There are a few places in the book where Clay reflects on the sophistication of technology (“Books used to be pretty high-tech, back in the day. Not anymore” (90), for example), and it’s not always the shiniest, most advanced piece of tech that ends up providing solutions. Sometimes, it’s a matter of thinking about old tech in new ways; mostly, it’s about not falling into the trap of assuming that there’s only a narrow field of use for technology (or that technology is of no use). So while Kirschenbaum writes that DH is “a field of study, research, teaching, and invention concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities,” that definition has opened up onto broader inquiries into the relationship of media, materiality, and the humanistic disciplines in a way that the digital provokes, but may not completely capture. More recently, the collaboratively written Digital_Humanities volume from MIT describes DH as both transhistorical and transmedia.
The authors of that book also observe that
[Digital humanities] asks what it means to be a human being in the networked information age and to participate in fluid communities of practice, asking and answering research questions that cannot be reduced to a single genre, medium, discipline, or institution.
For me, this helps to open up what we might mean in calling Penumbra a DH novel–from the library of the Unbroken Spine to Kat’s efforts with Google Forever, there is a great deal of speculation in this book about what it means to be human, and what it means for our more traditional institutions (such as bookstores) to think in terms of networked information. And much of the book is driven by Clay’s ability to negotiate some fairly disparate communities of practice (even if these are sometimes plot conveniences). There’s a crucial moment for me, one that I think avoids any sort of spoilage: at one point late in the book, Edward Deckle tells Clay, “You seem very resourceful,” and this feels very resonant to me. Clay drives the plot forward, but he also functions very explicitly as a weak tie among many of the other characters (and disciplines, and institutions) in the book–the communities of practice ultimately coalesce around his efforts. So, he’s also resourceful in the sense that he’s able to fuel the collaboration necessary for the story.[If I wanted to go full-on lit paper here, I’d probably talk about the etymology of penumbra, and the way that Clay bridges a number of tensions–property/piracy, human/machine, nerd/cool, natural/artificial, etc. Be relieved, because that’s all I’ll say on that.]
He’s also the one person (although Kat comes awfully close) who has access to the material resources necessary for all of this, and that’s a piece of it, too. Some fairly impressive resources are marshaled on his behalf in the book. I mean this in the economic sense, but also in the physical sense, because I was a little surprised, this time through, how often I thought about “making.” Perhaps it was having glanced back at Stephen Ramsay’s infamous claim that “Digital Humanities is about building things.” Most of the characters in the book are builders–even the minor ones like Ashley, who comes “alive” in their kitchen, or Grumble, when he holds the shrooms. Like Ramsay’s, Sloan’s is a capacious definition of building, I think.
I think I’ve probably said enough. I’m sure that there will be other novels that fall into this odd, little DH category — there are already pieces of some out there: my first introduction to text mining as a reading strategy came more than 20 years ago when I read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler in college! But I think that Penumbra is more than a novel that happens to make use of metadata, visualization, and high-end computing as plot devices. In its accounting of network fluidity, collaboration, resourcefulness, and media consciousness, Sloan’s novel embodies for me a lot of the curiosity and energy that I associate with DH. Ultimately, that was probably the main reason I suggested it to my students.
We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.