” All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight. ”
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a fantasy novel that explores a jumble of questions that confront our digitalized society. Robin Sloan imposes the question whether books are merely stories and ideas, or in some ways irreducibly physical objects. The debut novel is eptly set in San Francisco, Google’s backyard, where its hero, a tech-everyman who is just out of a job from a failed start-up, goes to battle about whether books are precious objects or simply collections of data.
Clay Jannon stumbles across a bookshop (Columbus at Broadway, where the famous City Lights Bookstore is!) in which gains employment as the graveyard clerk. The mysterious Mr. Penumbra doesn’t mind he has no experience. In the front of the store are a few shelves with a tiny selection of well-known books. (Not bestsellers. Mr. Penumbra doesn’t care for them. He makes no allusion to pop culture.) Customers sometimes drop by to browse, but few ever buy anything. The true nature of the 24-hour bookstore is soon revealed to Clay. In the back, where, on several tall, laddered shelves, are thousands of books that are completely unique, but unreadable—nicknamed Waybacklist, which contain long, unintelligible strings of characters. It’s accessible only to a handful of eclectic patrons who seem to belong to a strange book club, but which reveals to be a secret society dedicated to cracking a code and decrypting hidden messages in those books.
There is no immortality that is not built on friendship.
Clay and his tech-savvy friends decide they could scan the books, turn the type into bits, and then let computers solve the puzzle. This endeavor, however, wreaks havoc of the secret society. But, to the utter shock of all of them, none of the Google computers around the world yields any result. “Great Decoding fails.” Genius depleted. The code is either non-existent or too complex to decrypt. Computers, ancient printing presses, secret societies all overshadow this novel. Mysterious buildings and shadowy rumors move and revolve around each other to create an intriguing story that moves back and forth across history, cleverly showing the essential truth of the aphorism about secret hidden in plain sight.
Who do you love books so much?
But the debate turns into an idea Sloan keeps ruminating throughout the book. All of Clay’s associates dedicate to building representations of the real world, and they have different opinions about which factors make for realistic representations. Sloan is not debating between the readiness of digitalized book vs. the nostalgia of textile pleasure, because technology will never replicate the feeling of reading a book. Technology at best mimics the information in books. Sloan, however, does appeal to readers about preserving words and ideas, and how human intelligence transcends the capability of machines. Surprisingly, and a bit of an anti-climax, the answer to the puzzle of the secret society’s books is one that pitched against the very process of scanning and copying. The idea behind that puzzle was to prevent something to the extent of Google’s endeavor—to make old knowledge available to everyone in swift electronic streams. But knowledge and wisdom in people’s head is way beyond the reach of any computer intelligence.
This is a heart-warming book about books, typography, and technology. It reminds us how often we take our surroundings for granted.
288 pp. Picador. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]