Data Storytelling in Novel Form

If information schools had a first book program, I’ve found their next selection: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The novel includes something for all information professionals: dusty books, Google’s book scanner, typefaces, time series visualizations, Ruby, dial-up Internet, Hadoop, Turkers, and an epic quest.

Upon completing my own epic semester of coding, event planning, and thesis research, I longed to lose myself in a story. I don’t read much fiction nowadays and didn’t care for an automated Amazon recommendation, so a few weeks ago I wandered into Ann Arbor’s newest bookstore, Literati, in search of human guidance.

The handwritten note did me in. Folded white papers scattered about the shelves and among the tabletop piles of books offered suggestions from the bookstore staff. Handwritten suggestions. Scrawled in pen, a refreshing reminder that these recommendations came from people who read the books and took the time to explain why they were worth your eyes.

The one tucked into the stack of “Mr Penumbra’s” said something along the lines of, If you like Google, you’ll like this book. “Well,” I thought, “I’m studying what Google does, is, and means in today’s society, so sure, I’ll pick this one up.” Ever the nerd, even in leisure.

The story centers on Clay Jannon, a recently unemployed art school graduate who lives in San Francisco and happens upon a bookstore in need of a clerk. But the bookstore loans more books than it sells, and the books it loans contain symbols, not words. Thus begins the epic quest, which at its climax includes the line, “We need James Bond with a library science degree,” (What iSchool reading group wouldn’t swoon over a book saying that?)

The story extends beyond the book; it includes an accompanying ebook “short” and a Twitter account. The physical book even glows in the dark (which is quite a novelty when you’re half-asleep and halfway through finals). So, take your mind off the cold (it’s -15 degrees F outside as I write this), wander into the world of Mr. Penumbra, and enjoy this technology-fueled homage to the printed word.

P.S. If anyone at UMSI is reading this, the author Robin Sloan is a Michigan native. We are meant to have a connection with this book…

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