Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

I launched this column of recommendations for book clubs six months ago with Alan Bennett's charming novel about bibliophilia, The Uncommon Reader. Well, I've just been seduced by another book that shares my passion for the printed word -- but let me assure you that Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is no mere meta-book. Robin Sloan's beguiling first novel is a rousing quest narrative and technological adventure story about a chummy band of geeks who seek to crack a 500-year-old code that may hold the key to immortality. We're all used to the ubiquitous supermarket question, "Paper or plastic?" It's a binary choice: either/or. Sloan pits paper against screen and Old Knowledge (called "OK" by his tech-savvy characters) against new technology and -- get this -- has them all win.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore hits that literary sweet spot: a happy, life-affirming book that is at once fun and meaty, light but not insubstantial. In a yarn that encompasses Dungeons & Dragons-type role playing, it celebrates passionate engagement, quirky individuality, and resourcefulness. Sloan, a San Francisco-based, self-described "media inventor" with years of experience at digital-era companies Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter, has pulled off a delightful paean to paper, print, the Internet, and technology, including some innovations that are still just a glimmer in Googlers' eyes. For all you fontophiles out there, you'll be happy to know that a typeface plays a pivotal role in Sloan's story. So, too, does friendship.

Sloan's likable narrator, Clay Jannon, is a San Francisco-based RISD-trained designer who has lost his first and only marketing job during the Great Recession. He writes, "The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could." What he grabs is a job as night clerk at a strange, 24-hour bookshop next door to a strip joint in a dicey neighborhood. Wizardly, blue-eyed, old Mr. Penumbra's job interview consists of three penetrating questions: "What do you seek in these shelves?"; "Tell me about a book you love"; and, "But can you climb a ladder?" Clay aces this test with his impassioned description of a fantasy trilogy he fell in love with in sixth grade, Clark Moffat's The Dragon-Song Chronicles. This made-up classic is also vital to Sloan's narrative, and while I've never cottoned to fantasy fiction, Sloan not only convinces us that it's an actual book, but of its allure.

He works similar magic with a fictional fifteenth-century font he calls Gerritszoon, named after Griffo Gerritszoon, a colleague of the actual Venetian publisher and printer, Aldus Manutius, who in real life commissioned Francesco Griffo to cut the first slanted italic type. Clay maintains that Gerritszoon, the typeface featured in all the massive, leather-bound tomes shelved three storeys high in Mr. Penumbra's bookshop, is still widely used today, preloaded on various e-readers and computers. He calls Mr. Penumbra's lending library the "Waybacklist," and it is these beautiful volumes, written in indecipherable code, that his few customers, all regulars, come to borrow, in what he discovers is a set sequence. Convinced that the store must be a front for something dark, Clay enlists several friends to help him figure out what's going on.

We should all be lucky enough to have such tech support -- and friends -- on call. If Clay is the rogue in this quest to uncover the secrets behind what is in a way a consummately peculiar book club, his childhood best friend, nerdy Neel Shah, is his warrior. Neel, the soon-to-be-spectacularly-rich genius behind a software company called Anatomix, "the de facto tool for the digital representation of breasts in digital media," provides financial, emotional, and technological assistance for his old buddy's mission. Clay's wizard is brilliant Kat Potente, his sometime girlfriend, whose primary devotion, alas, is to her work at Google. Kat fervently believes that brain hardware is changing in response to new software and that "writers [like Shakespeare] had their turn, and now it's programmers who get to upgrade the human operating system." She also believes that immortality is a nut that technology can crack.

One of the many pleasures of Sloan's novel is its mix of good, old-fashioned storytelling brio and accessible techno-speak, frequently softened by humor. When Clay describes a programming language called Ruby, which powers the 3-D graphics engine he uses to make a digital model of the bookshop, he comments good-humoredly, "If this sounds impressive to you, you're over thirty." Mr. Penumbra, the Obi-Wan of Clay's Rebel Alliance, reacts to the news that Clay and his friends have used Google to solve a puzzle that has mystified and challenged members of his Unbroken Spine fellowship for centuries, with "the strangest expression on his face -- the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND." Sloan ribs fusty bibliophiles and a local bookstore's "sprawling Food Politics section," but he has particular fun taking jabs at techies. "Books: boring. Codes: awesome. These are the people who are running the internet," he writes. At the end of a description of products that Google is working on -- a list that includes a sushi search engine and a time machine! -- Clay adds, "They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris. (Okay, I made that one up.)"

Clay's quest to solve the riddle of the bookstore takes him to numerous vividly described -- and eminently filmable -- locations. These include Google headquarters; an underground library in New York City; a museum of "Knitting Arts and Embroidery Sciences" whose mission is "almost as weird as Penumbra's"; and a vast, Home Depot-like warehouse in Enterprise, Nevada, where museum artifacts are stored, a sort of "Bloomberg terminal of antiquity." Sloan's affable, enterprising Everyman comments, "You know, I'm really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules."

Among the questions Sloan's novel poses are why people love books, and what they seek in them. Answers range from their smell to the pursuit of knowledge. Anyone reading Mr. Penumbra is likely to add that people also seek distraction and entertainment, and love books like this for the considerable rush of pleasure they bring.

Two minor gripes: Sloan's Epilogue is so tidy, it's as if he's run a defrag program on his novel. And not fully trusting readers to have caught his message, he spells out his moral, as reductively oversimplified as a Wikipedia entry: "There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight…. It's not easy to imagine the year 3012, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try. We have new capabilities now -- strange powers we're still getting used to…. Your life must be an open city, with all sorts of ways to wander in." It's as if Sloan decided to paste in his own prefab "Readers' Guide for Discussion." Still, if you are looking for entry points for discussion -- voilà.

Sloan also provides hints for further reading by stocking Mr. Penumbra's shelves with fiction by Haruki Murakami, Neal Stephenson, and Dashiell Hammett. Murakami's wonderfully surreal novel Kafka on the Shore, which John Updike described as an "insistently metaphysical mind-bender," also features a private library setting as well as an intellectual cocktail of fantasy and adventure. On another tack, if you're fond of fonts and interested in the detail-obsessed designers who create them, Simon Garfield's Just My Type is eye candy for typomaniacs. All of these books make a robust case for the future of literature, in whatever format you choose to read them.

About the Columnist
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

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