Interview: Joshua Cohen, Author Of 'Book Of Numbers' Writer Joshua Cohen says his new novel (about a journalist and a tech mogul both also named Joshua Cohen) aims to reclaim the Internet. "It's made of our humanity," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel.

This 'Book Of Numbers' Speaks A Human Language

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Telling you what Joshua Cohen's sprawling, comic, tragic new novel is about is not easy. I'm tempted to use the old joke, it's about 600 pages, but Cohen beat me to it. He actually uses that joke in the novel, which is called "Book Of Numbers." I'll give it a try. "Book Of Numbers" is about a digital-age superstar, founder of a Google-like super search engine called Tetration. It's about the Holocaust, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Arabs, government surveillance of email, writers, their editors, agents and parents, also nonparents, estranged spouses, and I could go on. Joshua Cohen, thanks for joining us today.

JOSHUA COHEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: I feel like I've just spent a very intense week with you reading the "Book Of Numbers," and it's been a lot of fun. Let's start with your protagonist, Joshua Cohen, the writer. Explain how his misfortune was to have written a book with the pub date 9/11 2001.

COHEN: Well, you know, the misfortune is all in his egotism or his narcissism, right? I mean, he thinks that he's the sole victim of 9/11. I mean, he says this sort of rhetorically, and he says this with - realizing it's a ridiculous statement. But he feels, in some way, that the life that he was promised, the life of, you know, an author, was denied him. And he ends up falling into a cycle of working in journalism during a time when the journalism was being eviscerated by the Internet. And it's really through his use, then, of the Internet that he discovers his double, you know, the other Joshua Cohen.

SIEGEL: Joshua Cohen, the Internet mogul...


SIEGEL: ...Whom you refer to as Principal.

COHEN: Principal.

SIEGEL: But the book that he actually wrote was a Holocaust saga, a family saga, and it's completely ignored because people don't care about his book - he thinks, anyway.

COHEN: Right. I mean, I thought that, you know, one of the least promising ways to begin a book is probably to have a party for a Holocaust memoir that happens to fall on 9/11 2001.

SIEGEL: (Laughter). Yes it is.

COHEN: And I felt like, you know, setting myself up for the most difficult beginning - right? - if I could surmount that challenge, which I hope that I have, the rest of the book would sort of flow from there.

SIEGEL: I mean, the "Book Of Numbers," your novel, has - it seems to have a language all of its own, a kind of stream of search results. First, how do you describe the language? Is it the language of the Internet that you're using here?

COHEN: Well, it's a useful shorthand, but really, you know, there is no, I think, language of the Internet. I mean, the Internet is a tool, is technology. And we like to say that, you know, it has all of these properties, but the Internet is just a place where our writing is. It's made of our words. It's made of our humanity, so I don't - I think that the language is really an attempt to take back from the Internet or to reclaim from the Internet the words that are essentially our humanity, that are our souls and our ways of thinking about our relationships with one another and with existence. And so, to me, it was a real attempt to show how everything that we are has been externalized to this technology and then to say, no, it actually is ours. We contain the Internet. The Internet, too, is a human project.

SIEGEL: Yeah, well, one of your characters, though, says something about what technology has done to the novel. I'm going to quote now. He says, (reading) for a novel to function properly, its characters had to be kept apart from each other, separated into missing each other and never communicating, and that now, in this present of PDAs and online, people were rarely ever plausibly alone. Everyone knew what everyone else was thinking, and the result was a life of fewer cross purposes and mixups, of les portent and mystery, too.

Did Google kill the novel? Is that what you're saying?

COHEN: (Laughter). Well, you know, I think - I think if, you know, German literature could survive the '40s and Russian literature could survive Sovietism, you know, the American novel can survive Google.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

COHEN: I do think that there - you know, the introduction of a PDA to most Victorian novels would reduce them from their, you know, three-volume size to about 30 pages, right? So it just - what's required, I think, is a new set of strategies. These are ways that we can sort of tell the Internet or instruct people to start thinking about language as theirs, as a uniquely human and passionate project.

SIEGEL: A lot of this book is the story of Joshua Cohen the Internet mogul - Principal - whose story is being told by Joshua Cohen the writer, and you're writing it as Joshua Cohen the real person. And a lot of this story is how Principal created this company, Tetration. I suppose you could have gotten away with ducking the technology that would have gone into this company, but you don't. You have immersed yourself in what the birth of a search engine was like.

COHEN: Well, because, you know, the birth of the search engine - it's nothing new. I mean, it's essentially embedded in our literature. It's how ideas relate, how the mind makes connections. I mean, connections are made online through links, and within an algorithm, they're made through degrees of relevancy between different terms. But, you know, our minds make these connections through inspiration. Our minds make these, you know, connections also through logic.

You know, I mean, without computers in the 17th century, we could classify the entire animal kingdom, right? We could classify, you know, the plant kingdom, right? There was this idea of, you know, this speciation, right? And, now, all the search engine is is essentially the mathematical speciation of ideas. And so these things really derive from the way that language is used and the way that words relate. Now, as for, you know, setting up a startup - I mean, it would have probably been easier for me to, you know, have set up - really set up a startup and made some money.

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

COHEN: Instead, you know, instead, there's this novel. But, for me, it was really to show that there is a human element in all of this technological change.

SIEGEL: There's a passage in which Principal - the other Joshua Cohen, not the writer Joshua Cohen - is with his grandfather. And his grandfather's explaining the way to communicate with the family. The way he communicated with his family back in Europe was through the stars. Can you explain what he's doing and read a bit of that for us?

COHEN: Yes. Principal is walking on the beach. He's a child, and he's walking on the beach with his grandfather. And his grandfather is telling him the history of his family in Europe, and he essentially introduces his grandson to the idea of the Internet - right? - to the idea of where - you know, how communications be stored. And this really is based on looking at a star at the same time as a loved one across the ocean and investing that star with emotion. Should I begin?


COHEN: (Reading) Joseph told Cohen that these communications would become stored in these stars from which they could be accessed not at a certain time or from a certain place, but at any time or from any place and ultimately not just by the relations and friends they were intended for, but also by anyone sensitive enough to go seeking. Anything ever communicated to a star, Joseph told Cohen, could be accessed, even after the death of its transmitter and, unlike with the spinning satellites and their transmissions, could be accessed and even altered by the dead themselves. And then he mentioned Oma Eve (ph) and encouraged Cohen to speak with her in this way freely. And then he mentioned himself and encouraged Cohen to speak with him in this way, too, freely once he himself passed to that light on the other side of the darkness. Your father does this kind of thing now with machines, which I don't have to understand because what they do isn't new to me.

SIEGEL: Joshua Cohen, thanks for talking with us today.

COHEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Joshua Cohen, whose new novel features two characters named Joshua Cohen. It's called "Book Of Numbers," and it's out tomorrow.

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