by Robin Sloan
Hardcover (2 Oct 2012), 304 pages.
(Due out in paperback Sep 2013)
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone - and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead "checking out" impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he's embarked on a complex analysis of the customers' behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what's going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.
With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that's rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.
LOST IN THE SHADOWS of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I've left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it's dark up therethe books are packed in close, and they don't let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.
I am holding on for dear life, one hand on the ladder, the other on the lip of a shelf, fingers pressed white. My eyes trace a line above my knuckles, searching the spinesand there, I spot it. The book I'm looking for.
But let me back up.
* * *
My name is Clay Jannon and those were the days when I rarely touched paper.
I'd sit at my kitchen table and start scanning help-wanted ads on my laptop, but then a browser tab would blink and I'd get distracted and follow a link to a long magazine article about genetically modified wine grapes. Too long, actually, so I'd add it to my reading list. Then I'd follow another link to a book review. I'd add the review to my reading list, too, then download the first chapter of the bookthird in a series about vampire police. Then, help-wanted ads forgotten, I'd retreat to the living room, put my laptop on my belly, and read all day. I had a lot of free time.
I was unemployed, a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, leaving bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake.
The job I lost was at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, which was based not in New York or anywhere else with a tradition of bagel-making but instead here in San Francisco. The company was very small and very new. It was founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle. It was my first job out of art school, and I started as a designer, making marketing materials to explain and promote this tasty toroid: menus, coupons, diagrams, posters for store windows, and, once, an entire booth experience for a baked-goods trade show.
There was lots to do. First, one of the ex-Googlers asked me to take a crack at redesigning the company's logo. It had been big bouncy rainbow letters inside a pale brown circle; it looked pretty MS Paint. I redesigned if using a newish typeface with sharp black serifs that I thought sort of evoked the boxes and daggers of Hebrew letters. It gave NewBagel some gravitas and it won me an award from San Francisco's AIGA chapter. Then, when I mentioned to the other ex-Googler that I knew how to code (sort of), she put me in charge of the website. So I redesigned that, too, and then managed a small marketing budget keyed to search terms like "bagel" and "breakfast" and "topology." I was also the voice of @NewBagel on Twitter and attracted a few hundred followers with a mix of breakfast trivia and digital coupons.
None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things. I was moving up. But then the economy took a dip, and it turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they're sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.
The ex-Googlers were accustomed to success and they would not go quietly. They quickly rebranded to become the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company and abandoned the algorithm entirely so the bagels started coming out blackened and irregular. They instructed me to make the website look old-timey, a task that burdened my soul and earned me zero AIGA awards. The marketing budget dwindled, then disappeared. There was less and less to do. I wasn't learning anything and I wasn't moving anywhere.
Excerpted from Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Copyright © 2012 by Robin Sloan. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Reading Guide
Sweeping from Europe's legendary Renaissance book printers to the new frontiers of the Information Age, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a rollicking adventure and an inspiring ode to the published word.
Like many victims of the Great Recession, the web designer Clay Jannon finds himself out of a job. Then, thanks to serendipity (and his ability to climb a ladder like a monkey), Clay lands a new gig working the night shift at a mysterious San Francisco shop, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. After just a few days on the job, Clay begins to wonder how the store stays in business. There are only a few customers. They come in repeatedly, but never seem to actually buy anything, instead "checking out" impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. Clay soon ropes his friends into helping to figure out just what's going on, revealing tantalizing secrets that can be traced back to the world's first typeset books. In this captivating debut novel, Robin Sloan lures us to a hallowed bookstore that we'll never want to leave, where a mysterious collection raises compelling questions about the nature of our love for books and the future of reading itself.
The discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. We hope they will enrich your experience of this inventive literary tale.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
- Related to the word "umbrella," Mr. Penumbra's last name can refer to an area of partial illumination (especially in astronomy) or something that serves as a shroud. What makes his bookstore source of light, even though it operates in the shadows?
- What were your initial theories about the bookstore's mysterious patrons and their project? What did you predict Manutius's message would be?
- At the heart of the novel is the collision of old-world handwork and the automated digital age. How do Clay and Mat build a bridge between these two worlds?
- Discuss Clay's pursuit of love. What makes Kat attractive to him? What does it take to win her over?
- The characters remind us that fifteenth-century technologies of the book - from punch-cutting to typesetting - were met with fear and resistance, as well as with entrepreneurial competition and the need to teach new skills. How does this compare to the launch of e-books? If you try to picture what literacy will look like five hundred years from now, what do you see?
- If you were to file a codex vitae, capturing all you've learned throughout your life, what would it contain?
- As Clay and the team of Google decoders take on the same challenge, what do they discover about the relative strengths of the human brain and technology?
- Neel's financial backing makes it possible for Clay to outwit Corvina and the Festina Lente Company, despite its many lucrative enterprises. In this novel, what can money buy, and what are the limitations of wealth?
- Clay's literary idol, Clark Moffat, was forced to make a choice between the Unbroken Spine project and his commercially successful fiction. If you had been Moffat, which path would you have chosen?
- Are Penumbra and his colleagues motivated only by a quest for immortality? If not, what are the other rewards of their labor-intensive work? Can books give their authors immortality?
- How did you react to Gerritszoon's "message to eternity," revealed in the closing passages? How can his wisdom apply to your life?
- Discuss the physical traits of your copy of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. Do you have a hard copy or an e-book, and where did you buy it? How does the design of the book enhance your reading experience?
- Clay grapples with the fact that e-books could make brick-and-mortar bookstores unnecessary. How have your community's bookstores fared in recent years? Did the novel reassure you about the role of technology in the lives of book lovers?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a novel whose own history uncannily echoes its themes. The original genesis of Sloan's debut novel was as a self-published ebook short story, which then, following its overwhelming success in that form, found its way to a print publisher and a new life as a traditionally published, full-length novel. Likewise, the plot and themes of Sloan's novel continuously - and vigorously - cross the boundaries between old and new technologies, between traditional knowledge and new ways of thinking, between a possibly irrelevant past and a still undefined future.
The central figure in this drama is Clay Jannon, a twenty-something graphic designer who has been the victim, on more than one occasion, of the Great Recession. To make ends meet, he finds himself working as the night clerk at the eponymous bookstore, which is really two bookstores in one. The front of the store houses more conventional titles like the Steve Jobs biography or the latest Murakami novel. In the back are the books Clay dubs the "Waybacklist", books so ancient and arcane that only a handful of people can even read them. Those people often come into the store in the wee hours, looks of desperation in their eyes, eager to borrow the next book in their self-defined series, often acting as if their very lives depend on pursuing the answers to a mysterious puzzle.
Which, it turns out, just might be true. The mystery at the heart of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is complicated and multilayered, so I don't want to give too much away here. Suffice it to say that Clay's investigation of the "Waybacklist" takes him from the headquarters of Google to a subterranean library in New York City, from fifteenth-century technologies to the most sophisticated computing networks available in the twenty-first century. Along the way Clay enlists the help of his oldest friend, his artistic roommate, a fetching Googler genius, his favorite childhood author, and, of course, Mr. Penumbra himself.
As you can probably tell, Sloan effectively combines real-world technologies, settings, and situations with unabashed fantasy - trying to discern the difference (and in many cases deciding it doesn't really matter) is a great deal of the fun. Ultimately a very satisfying (and surprisingly old-fashioned) adventure story, Sloan's debut is also a reminder for readers about the varied pleasures of reading, of discovery, of investigation, and of books themselves.
Ultimately, Sloan's novel offers the most profound respect for books and reading and learning in all its forms. As Clay notes near the novel's end, "We have new capabilities now - strange powers we're still getting used to." The novel both validates those powers and also values the centuries of old knowledge that came before. Whether readers are of the sort drawn to the smell of paper and the shape of typography or of the sort compelled by innovation, invention, and the thrill of the hunt, they can definitely find common ground in this novel that embodies - from the beginning to the end - the best of both worlds.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl
San Francisco Chronicle
A jaunty, surprisingly old-fashioned fantasy about the places where old and new ways of accessing knowledge meet . . . [Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore] cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy . . . Sloan’s ultimate answer to the mystery of what keeps people solving Penumbra’s puzzle is worth turning pages to find out.
The Washington Post
The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Beguiling . . . The plot is as tight as nesting boxes, or whatever their digital equivalent . . . Sly and infectious.
[A] winning literary adventure . . . Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age.
An irresistible page-turning novel.
Sloan has crafted a delightful modern-day fantasy adventure, replacing warriors, wizards, and rogues with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a Googler, and a book clerk. Even nongeeks will appreciate the technological wizardry used by Clay and his sidekicks as they jet from San Francisco to New York in an attempt to unlock the secret message encrypted in a mysterious pattern of codes.
From the shadows of Penumbra's bookshelves to the brightly lit constellation of cyberspace to the depths of a subterranean library, Sloan deftly wields the magicks (definitely with a "k") of the electronic and the literary in this intricate mystery.
Starred Review. [An] old-fashioned tale likably reconceived for the digital age, with the happy message that ingenuity and friendship translate across centuries and data platforms.
George Saunders, in Blip Magazine
Wonderful ... I had a great time reading [Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore], flew through it in one sitting ...The reader gets that deeply satisfying feeling of entering a wholly created world, and looking on in wonder as that world gets created by the author's fearlessness and disregard for convention ... It's a lot of fun, a real tour de force.
I love this book ... It's a good-hearted, optimistic book about friendship and being alive and the lure of the mysterious. It's a book that shows you Google the way Google sees itself, and bookshops the way bookshops ought to be. It's a tonal roadmap to a positive relationship between the old world and the new. It's a book that gets it. Plus, you know: book cults, vertical bookshops, hot geeks, theft, and the pursuit of immortality. This book is in my emotional heartland.
Rated of 5
by Dianne, Book Shop owner
Old meets New
This month I stepped away from my usual historical fiction books and read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a contemporary novel by debut author Robin Sloan. I was of course drawn in by the title. Upon finishing Mr. Penumbra's 24 - Hour Bookstore, I immediately turn to the front and started it again. I not only didn't want it to end, I wanted to relive the experience.
The book features Clay Jannon an unemployed art student/web designer and science fiction reader. Clay stumbles across a help wanted sign in the window of an out of the way San Francisco bookstore. Clay begins working the night shift, 10:00 pm to 6:00 am. The bookstore is not all that it seems, but what exactly it is, is what is to be discovered.
One thing about the store is that there are very few customers. The store has used books for sell in the front but in the back are books that Clay refers to as the Waybacklist. These books inhabit bookshelves that are over 30 feet tall and accessed by tall rolling ladders. These books are not sold, but borrowed by “members” that come in and request books at all times of the night and day. There is a logbook, which records the coming and goings of the members. The logbooks go back over 100 years.
In addition to the mysterious nearly medieval characters that are the members, there is quite a cast of characters with whom Clay lives with and interacts. Some are the best and brightest of from the techno world of Google and the Internet. Others are mysterious characters that make up the secret society of the Bound and Unbound. The locations range from Penumbra’s dusty vertical bookshelves, to a secret underground bookroom in New York City. Clay also visits an ultra dry storage facility in Nevada where forgotten museum relics are housed. The super techno campus of the Goggle headquarters in San Francisco is also visited.
This book is a great mix of shadowy old world and shiny new world, old knowledge vs. new knowledge, E readers vs. the printed word. I may read it again!
I don't think it's giving too much away to note that the process of book scanning plays a significant role in the plot of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. At the center of the novel's plot is the high-speed book scanning process used by Google in its Books project.
Setting aside any of the controversy around Google Books and potential copyright infringement (a recent law suit determined that Google's book scanning is fair use), anyone could agree that Google's project is both ambitious and impressive.
Originally launched in 2002 and inspired by databases of public domain works like Project Gutenberg, Google Books has since scanned more than 20 million books using high-speed robotic cameras that can process as many as a thousand pages per hour. Google has partnered on this project both with libraries and with individual rights holders and publishers.
Besides the obvious potential advantages of being able to access the full text of any printed volume from any computer anywhere in the world, by virtue of the sheer volume of available texts, Google Books also allows people - from programmers to linguists to historians to ordinary citizens - access to a vast storehouse of information that illustrates how we use language, how writing has changed over time, and how communication itself has evolved over many centuries of printed, and even pre-printed, work.
Many researchers now use this vast repository to embark on elaborate cross-platform analyses; one example of such a project was explained during a recent Tedx talk, illustrating via sophisticated data mapping tools how word use has changed over time. As a recent Atlantic article explains, these tools can be utilized not only to investigate the changing nature of individual words but also to examine how trends, interests, and objects of human preoccupation have changed over time. Projects like Google Books exemplify the power of large numbers and illustrate vividly how new technology can use old knowledge in strikingly new ways.
By Norah Piehl