Mr. Penumbra s 24 Hour Bookstore 24


  So finally, after a few decades, after inventing a new industry and printing hundreds of volumes that we still think of as, like, the most beautiful books ever made, both of these guys were getting old. They decided to collaborate on a great final project, one that was going to take everything they’d experienced, everything they’d learned, and package it up for posterity.

  Manutius wrote his codex vitae, and in it, he was honest: He explained how things really worked in Venice. He explained the shady deals he’d struck to secure his exclusive license to print the classics; he explained how all his rivals had tried to shut him down; he explained how he’d shut a few of them down instead. Precisely because he was so honest, and because if it was released immediately it would damage the business he was passing on to his son, he wanted to encrypt it. But how?

  At the same time, Gerritszoon was cutting a typeface, his best ever—a bold new design that would sustain Manutius’s printing house after he was gone. He hit a home run, because those are the shapes that now bear his name. But in the process, he did something unexpected.

  Aldus Manutius died in 1515, leaving behind a very revealing memoir. At this point, according to the lore of the Unbroken Spine, Manutius entrusted Gerritszoon with the key to this encrypted history. But something got lost in translation over five hundred years.

  Gerritszoon didn’t get the key.

  Gerritszoon is the key.


  Here’s a picture of one of the Gerritszoon punches: the X.

  Here it is closer.

  And closer still.

  Here it is through my friend Mat’s magnifying glass. Do you see the tiny notches in the edge of the letter? They look like the teeth of a gear, don’t they?—or the teeth of a key.

  (There’s a loud, rattling gasp. It’s Tyndall. I can always count on him to get excited.)

  Those tiny notches are not accidents, and they are not random. There are notches like that on all the punches, and all the molds made from the punches, and every piece of Gerritszoon type ever made. Now, I had to go to Nevada to figure this out; I had to hear Clark Moffat’s voice on tape to really get it. But if I’d known what I was looking for, I could have opened up my laptop, typed out some text in Gerritszoon, and blown it up 3,000 percent. The notches are in the computer version, too. Down in their library, the Unbroken Spine doesn’t deign to use computers … but up above, the Festina Lente Company hired some very diligent digitizers.

  That’s the code, right there. Those tiny notches.

  Nobody in the fellowship’s five-hundred-year history thought to look this closely. Neither did any of Google’s code-breakers. We were looking at digitized text in a different typeface entirely. We were looking at the sequence, not the shape.

  The code is both complicated and simple. Complicated because an uppercase F is different from a lowercase f. Complicated because the ligature ff isn’t two lowercase f‘s—it’s a completely different punch. Gerritszoon has tons of alternate glyphs—three P’s, two C’s, a truly epic Q—and those all mean something different. To crack this code, you need to think typographically.

  But after that, it’s simple, because all you have to do is count the notches, which I did: carefully, under a magnifying glass, at my kitchen table, no data centers required. This is the kind of code you learn in a comic book: one number corresponds to one letter. It’s a simple substitution, and you can use it to decode Manutius’s codex vitae in no time.


  You can also do something else. When you lay the punches out in order—the same order they’d use in a case in a fifteenth-century print shop—you get another message. It’s a message from Gerritszoon himself. His final words for the world have been hiding in plain sight for five hundred years.

  It’s nothing spooky, nothing mystical. It’s just a message from a man who lived a long time ago. But here’s the part that is spooky: look around you.

  (Everybody does. Lapin cranes her neck. She looks worried.)

  See the signs on the shelves—where it says HISTORY and ANTHROPOLOGY and TEEN PARANORMAL ROMANCE? I noticed it earlier: those signs are all set in Gerritszoon.

  The iPhone comes loaded with Gerritszoon. Every new Microsoft Word document defaults to Gerritszoon. The Guardian sets headlines in Gerritszoon; so do Le Monde and the Hindustan Times. The Encyclopaedia Britannica used to be set in Gerritszoon; Wikipedia just switched last month. Think of the term papers, the curriculum vitae, the syllabi. Think of the résumés, the job offers, the resignation letters. The contracts and lawsuits. The condolences.

  It’s everywhere around us. You see Gerritszoon every day. It’s been here all this time, staring us in the face for five hundred years. All of it—the novels, the newspapers, the new documents—it’s all been a carrier wave for this secret message, hidden in the colophon.

  Gerritszoon figured it out: the key to immortality.

  (Tyndall jumps up out of his seat, howling, “But what is it?” He tugs at his hair. “What is the message?”)

  Well, it’s in Latin. The Google translation is rough. Keep in mind that Aldus Manutius was born with a different name: he was Teobaldo, and his friends all called him that.

  So here it is. Here’s Gerritszoon’s message to eternity.


  Thank you, Teobaldo

  You are my greatest friend

  This has been the key to everything


  THE SHOW IS OVER and the audience is clearing out. Tyndall and Lapin are lined up for coffee in Pygmalion’s tiny café. Neel is still pitching Tabitha on the transcendent beauty of boobs in sweaters. Mat and Ashley are talking animatedly with Igor and the Japanese duo, all of them walking slowly toward the front door.

  Kat is sitting alone, nibbling the very last vegan oat cookie. Her face is drawn. I wonder what she thinks of Gerritszoon’s immortal words.

  “Sorry,” she says, shaking her head. “It’s not good enough.” Her eyes are dark and downcast. “He was so talented, and he still died.”

  “Everybody dies—”

  “This is enough for you? He left us a note, Clay. He left us a note.” She shouts it, and an oat crumb comes shooting off her lips. Oliver Grone glances over from the ANTHROPOLOGY shelves, eyebrows raised. Kat looks down at her shoes. Quietly, she says, “Don’t call that immortality.”

  “But what if this is the best part of him?” I say. I’m composing this theory in real-time: “What if, you know—what if hanging out with Griffo Gerritszoon wasn’t always that great? What if he was weird and dreamy? What if the best part of him was the shapes he could make with metal? That part of him really is immortal. It’s as immortal as anything’s going to get.”

  She shakes her head, sighs, and leans into me a little, pushing the last bits of the cookie into her mouth. I found the old knowledge, the OK, that we’d been looking for, but she doesn’t like what it has to say. Kat Potente will keep searching.

  After a moment, she pulls back, takes a sharp breath, and lifts herself up. “Thanks for inviting me,” she says. “See you around.” She shrugs on her blazer, waves goodbye, and heads for the door.

  Now Penumbra calls me over.

  “It is amazing,” he cries, and he is himself again, with his bright eyes and wide smile. “All this time, we were playing Gerritszoon’s game. My boy, we had his letters on the front of the store!”

  “Clark Moffat figured this out,” I tell him. “I have no idea how, but he did. And then I guess he just … decided to play along. Keep the puzzle going.” Until someone found it all waiting in his books.

  Penumbra nods. “Clark was brilliant. He was always off on his own, following his intuition wherever it led him.” He pauses, cocks his head, then smiles. “You would have liked him.”

  “So you’re not disappointed?”

  Penumbra’s eyes go wide. “Disappointed? Impossible. It is not what I expected, but what did I expect? What did any of us expect? I will tell you that I did no
t expect to know the truth in my lifetime. It is a gift beyond measure, and I am grateful to Griffo Gerritszoon, and to you, my boy.”

  Now Deckle approaches. He’s beaming, almost bouncing. “You did it!” he says, clapping me on the shoulders. “You found them! I knew you could—I knew it—but I had no idea how far it would go.” Behind him, the black-robes are all chattering to one another. They look excited. Deckle glances around. “Can I touch them?”

  “They’re all yours,” I tell him. I haul the Gerritszoon punches in their cardboard ark out from under a chair in the front row. “You’ll have to officially buy them from Con-U, but I have the forms, and I don’t think—”

  Deckle holds up a hand. “Not a problem. Trust me—not a problem.” One of the New York black-robes comes over and the rest all follow. They bend over the box, oohing and aahing like there’s an infant inside.

  “So it was you who set him on this path, Edgar?” Penumbra says, arching an eyebrow.

  “It occurred to me, sir,” Deckle says, “that I had at my disposal a rare talent.” A pause, a smile, and then: “You do know how to pick the right clerks.” Penumbra snorts and grins at that. Deckle says, “This is a triumph. We’ll make fresh type, reprint some of the old books. Corvina can’t argue with that.”

  Penumbra darkens at the mention of the First Reader—his old friend.

  “What about him?” I ask. “He—uh. He seemed upset.”

  Penumbra’s face is serious. “You must look after him, Edgar. As old as he is, Marcus has little experience with disappointment. For as firm as he seems, he is fragile. I worry about him, Edgar. Truly.”

  Deckle nods. “We’ll take care of him. We have to figure out what’s next.”

  “Well,” I say, “I’ve got something for you to start with.” I bend down and lift a second cardboard box out from under the chairs. This one is brand-new, and it has fresh plastic tape in a wide X across the top. I tear the tape and fold back the flaps, and inside, the box is full of books: shrink-wrapped bundles of paperbacks packed tight. I poke a hole in the plastic and slide one out. It’s just plain blue and on the front it says MANVTIVS in tall white capitals.

  “This is for you,” I say, handing it to Deckle. “A hundred copies of the decoded book. Original Latin. I figured you guys would want to translate it yourselves.”

  Penumbra laughs and says to me, “And now you are a publisher as well, my boy?”

  “Print on demand, Mr. Penumbra,” I say. “Two bucks each.”

  Deckle and his black-robes ferry their treasures—one old box, one new—to their rented van outside. Pygmalion’s gray-haired manager watches cautiously from the café as they sweep out of the store, singing a happy carol in Greek.

  Penumbra has a contemplative look on his face. “My only regret,” he says, “is that Marcus will certainly burn my codex vitae. Like the Founder’s, it was a kind of history, and I am sad to see it go.”

  Now I get to blow his mind a second time. “When I was down in the library,” I say, “I scanned more than Manutius.” I dig into my pocket, pull out a blue USB drive, and press it into his long fingers. “It’s not as nice as the real thing, but the words are all here.”

  Penumbra holds it up high. The plastic glints in the bookstore’s light, and there’s a wondering half smile playing on his lips. “My boy,” he breathes, “you are full of surprises.” Then he arches an eyebrow. “And I could print this for just two dollars?”


  Penumbra wraps a thin arm around my shoulders, leans in close, and says quietly, “This city of ours—it has taken me too long to realize it, but we are in the Venice of this world. The Venice.” His eyes widen, then press shut, and he shakes his head. “Just like the Founder himself.”

  I’m not sure where he’s going with this.

  “What I have finally come to understand,” Penumbra says, “is that we must think like Manutius. Fedorov has money, and so does your friend—the funny one.” We’re looking out across the bookstore together now. “So what do you say we find a patron or two … and start again?”

  I can’t believe it.

  “I must admit,” Penumbra says, shaking his head, “I am in awe of Griffo Gerritszoon. His achievement is inimitable. But I have more than a little time left, my boy”—he winks—”and there are still so many mysteries to solve. Are you with me?”

  Mr. Penumbra. You have no idea.


  SO WHAT’S GOING to happen after that?

  Neel Shah, dungeon master, will succeed in his quest to sell his company to Google. Kat will make a pitch to the PM, and they’ll go for it. They will acquire Anatomix, rebrand it Google Body, and release a new version of the software that anybody can download for free. The boobs will still be the best part.

  After that, Neel will finally be rich beyond measure, and he will come into the fullness of his patronage. First, the Neel Shah Foundation for Women in the Arts will get an endowment, an office, and an executive director: Tabitha Trudeau. She will fill the firehouse floor with drawings, paintings, textiles, and tapestries, all the work of female artists, all scavenged from Con-U, and then she will begin to give out grants. Big ones.

  Next, Neel will lure Mat Mittelbrand away from ILM, and together they will start a production company that uses pixels, polygons, knives, and glue. Neel will buy the movie rights to The Dragon-Song Chronicles. After the Anatomix acquisition, he will immediately hire Igor back from Google and install him as lead programmer at Half-Blood Studios. He will be planning a trilogy in 3-D. Mat will direct.

  Kat will climb the ranks of the PM. First she’ll bring Google the decoded memoir of Aldus Manutius, which will become the cornerstone of a new Lost Books project. The New York Times will blog about it. Next, the acquisition of Anatomix and the popularity of Google Body will give her even more momentum. She’ll have her picture printed in Wired, a whole glossy half page, standing under the huge data visualization screens, hands on her hips, blazer hanging loosely over her bright red BAM! T-shirt.

  I will realize then that she never stopped wearing it after all.

  Oliver Grone will complete his doctorate in archaeology. He will find a job immediately, and not with a museum, but with the company that operates the Accession Table. He will be given the task of recategorizing every marble artifact made before 200 B.C., and he will be in heaven.

  I’ll ask Kat out on a date, and she will accept. We’ll go see Moon Suicide play live, and instead of talking about frozen heads, we’ll just dance. I will discover that Kat is a terrible dancer. On the steps in front of her apartment, she’ll kiss me once, light on the lips, and then disappear into the dark doorway. I’ll walk home and send her a text message along the way. The message will consist of a single value, one that I have deduced on my own after a long struggle with a geometry textbook: 25,000 miles.

  There will be an organizational fracture at the base of the Unbroken Spine. Back in New York, the First Reader will threaten doom and disappointment for any more who disobey. To make his point, he will, in fact, burn Penumbra’s codex vitae—and that will be a terrible miscalculation. The black-robes will be appalled, and finally, they will vote. All of the bound will gather in their bookish barrow and raise their hands one by one, and Corvina will be stripped of his position. He will remain CEO of the Festina Lente Company—where profits are up, way up—but down below, there will be a new First Reader.

  It will be Edgar Deckle.

  Maurice Tyndall will travel to New York to begin writing his codex vitae, and I will suggest that he petition to replace Deckle as the guardian of the Reading Room. That office could use a little life.

  Even though its vessel will be destroyed, the contents of Penumbra’s codex vitae will be safe, and I will offer to help him publish it.

  He will demur: “Perhaps someday, but not yet. Let it remain secret for now. After all, my boy”—his blue eyes will narrow and twinkle—”you might be surprised at what you find there.”

er, Penumbra and I will establish a new fellowship—actually, a little company. We’ll talk Neel into investing some of his Google-gotten gains, and it will turn out that Fedorov has millions in HP stock, so he’ll chip in some of that, too.

  Penumbra and I will sit and talk many times about what sort of enterprise might suit us best. Another bookstore? No. Some kind of publishing company? No. Penumbra will admit that he is happiest as a guide and a coach, not a scholar or a code-breaker. I will admit that I just want an excuse to put all my favorite people in a room together. So we’ll form a consultancy: a special-ops squad for companies operating at the intersection of books and technology, trying to solve the mysteries that gather in the shadows of digital shelves. Kat will supply our first contract: designing the marginalia system for Google’s prototype e-reader, which is thin and light, with a skin that’s not plastic but cloth, like a hardcover book.

  After that, we’ll have to make it on our own, and Penumbra will be an absolute pro in pitch meetings. He’ll put on a dark tweed suit and polish up his glasses, wobble into conference rooms at Apple and Amazon, look around the table, and say quietly, “What do you seek in this engagement?” His blue eyes, his jostling grin, and (frankly) his advanced age will leave them stunned, charmed, and utterly sold.

  We’ll have a narrow office down on sun-blasted Valencia Street, wedged between a taqueria and a scooter repair shop, furnished with big wooden desks from a flea market and long green shelves from IKEA. The shelves will be lined with Penumbra’s favorites, all rescued from the store: first editions of Borges and Hammett, airbrushed editions of Asimov and Heinlein, five different biographies of Richard Feynman. Every few weeks, we’ll cart the books out into the sunlight and hold a pop-up sidewalk sale, announced on Twitter at the last minute.