sábado, 8 de dezembro de 2012
Robin Sloan, Digital Guru, Takes a Journey Into Print
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Robin Sloan, a 32-year-old former Twitter manager and self-described “media inventor” from San Francisco, has established himself over the past few years as a notably nimble thinker on the future of digital culture.
But on Tuesday morning he arrived at the Grolier Club, a redoubt of rare book collectors on East 60th Street in Manhattan, prepared to talk — mostly very quickly — about the joys of old-fashioned paper and ink.
Dressed in a black Patagonia pullover and a straw fedora and downing a cup of coffee on the sidewalk, Mr. Sloan unleashed a rundown of the other venerable book depositories in the vicinity, including the New York Society Library on East 79th Street (the oldest cultural institution in New York) and the Mercantile Library on East 47th Street (now the Center for Fiction). “We’re standing in the middle of this whole history of private libraries,” he said, opening his eyes wide as punctuation. “It’s really cool.”
“Cool” is a word you hear a lot in conversation with Mr. Sloan. It’s also a word that pops up often in his first novel, “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” a rollicking neo-Borgesian tale about an unemployed San Francisco Web designer who takes a job in a mysterious bookshop only to find himself initiated into the Unbroken Spine, a 500-year-old secret society of bibliophiles on an unexpected collision course with Google.
The book, published this week by Farrar Straus & Giroux, is an affectionate shout-out to everything Mr. Sloan loves about his home city’s tech culture — some of whose luminaries were scheduled to appear in a 24-hour live Webcast staged by Mr. Sloan from the Center for Fiction, starting at 9 p.m. on Wednesday.
During a tour of the Grolier’s atmospheric third-floor library Mr. Sloan gave a preview of the playful attitude and fast-twitch intellectual style that he brings to the older side of his story.
The Grolier doesn’t own a copy of the “Codex Vita” of the 15th-century Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, the fictional tome on which Mr. Sloan’s plot turns. But in preparation for his visit Meghan Constantinou, the club’s librarian, had pulled out some “Aldines,” as books from Aldus’s very real print shop are known.
There was a 1502 edition of Catullus, printed in reader-friendly italic type (an Aldus invention), and a 1504 edition of Homer that belonged to the early French collector Jean Grolier, the club’s namesake. Both, Ms. Constantinou explained, were examples of the small-format, relatively affordable books that Aldus pioneered — the rough predecessors of today’s Modern Library classics.
Mr. Sloan, however, reached for another analogy. “They’re so appealing and human scale,” he said. “They must have felt as remarkable as an iPhone does now, and literally that high tech.”
Growing up in Troy, Mich., the son of a salesman and a home economics teacher, Mr. Sloan loved both computers and books, especially the ones “with spaceships and dragons,” he recalled. At Michigan State University, where he majored in economics, he started a literary magazine but never considered a literary career.
“I always got the sense that it was frivolous, and that maybe writing made-up stories wasn’t the best use of my time,” he said.
At the Poynter Institute, a journalism center in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he landed a fellowship after graduation, Mr. Sloan found himself writing them anyway, and grabbing huge numbers of eyeballs while he was at it. “Epic 2014,” a 2004 eight-minute Flash video describing an apocalyptic near-future in which the traditional news media are vanquished by a rampaging conglomerate called Googlezon, was viewed more than a million times — impressive numbers in the pre-YouTube era — and put Mr. Sloan and his collaborator, Matt Thompson, on the map.
“It’s amazing to watch how many times people reference that film,” said Andrew Fitzgerald, the manager of editorial programming at Twitter, who met Mr. Sloan shortly afterward, when both were working at Current TV in San Francisco. “Robin is incredibly good at stepping out of the present and looking to the future in what for most people is a bit of a fantastical way.”
Mr. Sloan said he owed his job at Current to another bit of speculative fiction. After reading about the start-up in 2004, he e-mailed Joel Hyatt, who founded the company with Al Gore, to inform him that he would be sending him a new idea about digital strategy every day for the next month.
Not that he already had the ideas. “I was driving cross-country, composing things in my head, stopping at rest stops to type them out,” he recalled. “The final message, basically, was ‘Hire me.’ ”
Mr. Sloan became Current’s employee No. 7 and, eventually, its official “futurist.” Among many other projects he orchestrated what he called the first-ever television broadcast using live Twitter data, during the 2008 presidential campaign. In 2010 he became the manager of media partnerships at Twitter.
Around the same time he started thinking about a literary career, a process that, as he recounts it, comes across as a friendly hack on the traditional machinery of publishing. In the spring of 2009, inspired by a friend’s tweet — “just misread ‘24-hour bookdrop’ as ‘24-hour bookshop.’ the disappointment is beyond words” — he wrote a 6,000-word version of “Mr. Penumbra,” which he published in the Kindle Store.
The story, priced at 99 cents, drew a respectable 5,000 downloads, Mr. Sloan estimated. Next came another straight-to-Kindle story, followed by“Annabel Scheme,” a detective novella “set halfway between San Francisco and the Internet” and financed with $14,000 raised on Kickstarter, then brand new.
In 2010 he signed with an agent, Sarah Burnes of the Gernert Company, and began spending his off hours from Twitter turning the Penumbra “prototype,” as he called it, into a full-scale novel. He had no shortage of ideas, he said. The bigger challenge was getting over the habit of writing in short, punchy — in a word, bloggy — chunks.
“When you’re writing for the Internet, you have the analytics, and you know that people are bailing every second,” he explained. “But various people kept reminding me that once people have bought a book, they’re in. You don’t have to be selling them on every page.”
While his fantasy of printing “Mr. Penumbra” in a custom typeface named after a crucial character turned out to be wildly impractical, Mr. Sloan — who fills the novel with odes to the beauty of the dead-tree book — praises the glow-in-the-dark cover designed by Rodrigo Corral as “a work of mad genius.” And his publishers praise him for bringing an infectious spirit of optimism to an industry knocked sideways by digital technology.
“He’s making things up as he goes along, making decisions partly on what’s the most fun,” said Sean McDonald, his editor at Farrar Straus. “He has the right mix of cleverness and hardheaded business sense, and that’s apparent in the book.”
When it comes to the showdown between print and digital, Mr. Sloan, who has 275,000 Twitter followers, strikes a gentle “why can’t we all get along?” tone. Not that he is entirely unconcerned with the downside of living inside the Googlezon. One of his first digital projects since leaving Twitter last November was a much-blogged-about iPhone app called Fish, a “tap essay” questioning the erosion of attention in our distracted digital age. In the months since, he has downgraded his “walking-around phone” to a basic Nokia that can only handle texts and calls.
Cellphones of any kind are forbidden inside the Grolier Club. But during his visit Mr. Sloan made sure to test-drive a different piece of gee-whiz technology he wrote about in the novel but had never seen: a secret door concealed in one of the library’s bookshelves.
Swinging it back and forth, Mr. Sloan noted with a satisfied smile, “It’s exactly as heavy as you expect a secret door to be.”
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 11:14