December 2012: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Reading Mr. Penumbra
In a debut called “dazzling” and “flat-out fun,” author Robin Sloan mixes new tech (the lead character is a Web designer…) with old tech (…who lands a job selling books at surprisingly odd hours) and adds a dash of mystery: Exactly what is going on at that store? Read all about it—and add your own thoughts—in a three-part discussion of Sloan’s intriguing Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, led by RealSimple.com Deputy Editor Maura Fritz.
Part 1: The Bookstore
“Strange things are afoot at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” —Clay Jannon
Libraries and bookstores, especially used-book stores, are magical places to me. I love spending an off hour combing through the stacks. And yet I own a Kindle; I’m reading this book on it (even though, like our hero Clay, I imagine my printed books whispering Traitor!). I have one foot planted firmly in print, one in digital, and I expect you do too. We’re living, like the mysterious programmer Grumble, at “the intersection of literature and code.”
Clay Jannon, erstwhile Web designer and digital marketer for NewBagel, creators of software that produces (good Lord) artificially perfect bagels, is out of a job and a bit down on his luck when he stumbles across a bookstore that needs a night clerk. And what a store it is: open round the clock, frequented by eccentrics, stocked with books written entirely in code. As much as no novels about teenage wizards grace its shelves, I can easily picture it in Diagon Alley.
Clay lives among computer geniuses, although his own accomplishments are more modest. Still, he has the skills to render the bookstore in 3-D (“If this sounds impressive to you,” he says, “you’re over 30”; touché). It turns out that computers are the keys to unlocking the mysteries of the bookstore.
But what are they?
The devoted clientele of the bookstore, the ones who borrow from the Waybacklist, evolved in Clay’s mind from readers to weirdly fanatic readers to members of a cult. They’re all working to solve a puzzle that will lead to...? We learn there’s a secret society, the Unbroken Spine, but is its purposes good or nefarious? Certainly Covina’s messenger is a little shady. And even Mr. Penumbra’s name seems like a kissing cousin of conundrum.
Bookies, I’m hooked. I want to know what this Unbroken Spine is all about. I keep thinking that its name has two meanings: It could refer to new, fresh books. Or it could refer to someone—or something—standing tall. Could that be print in the face of possible extinction?
Author Robin Sloan, himself a former Twitter manager, manages to both lovingly celebrate and skewer digital and print. So many of his lines are pure delight, and yet I think he also gets at the soullessness that can go hand-in-hand with digital and the whiff of the past that goes with print.
So what do you think so far? Where do you land on the digital-versus-print issue? What do you think about Google’s book scanners and digital mapping: scary/creepy or amazing? And the way that Clay’s Google programmer girlfriend, Kat, can conjure an army of digital helpers out of thin air? What do you think the Unbroken Spine is all about? And what about Mr. Penumbra?
When we leave off, Clay, Kat, and Clay’s childhood-best-friend-turned-digital-mogul Neel are poised to fly from California, home of Silicon Valley, to New York City, spiritual home of American print. Their purpose is to head off Mr. Penumbra from what they see as looming danger. Let’s see what happens next—and meet back here next Friday to talk about it. I can’t wait to jump back in.
Part 2: The Library
So here’s the thing about middle installments in trilogies: Generally, you’re left with more questions than answers, and that’s pretty much the case with the second of our three readings.
When we start off “The Library,” Clay, Kat, and Neel have staked out the headquarters of the Unbroken Spine. (I loved the line about how Kat had bought a copy of The New York Times but didn’t know how to operate it. Reminded me of the first time my young niece and nephew saw a rotary phone and asked how to dial it.) When Mr. Penumbra sees Clay, he’s hardly surprised. But rather than appearing at the HQ of the Unbroken Spine to be punished, he tells Clay, he’s there to make a push for modernity. Which, I have to admit, made the Unbroken Spine seem a bit disappointingly benign to me. How about you?
Another disappointment: finding out that the Dolphin and Anchor bar does not exist in New York City. However, thanks to our friend Google, I did find that the dolphin and anchor together are emblematic of the phrase Festina lente (a-ha!), a motto adopted by none other than Aldus Manutius (o-ho!). Amazingly, to a print nerd like me, Manutius is credited with inventing italic type, introducing the semicolon into printed materials, and spearheading the idea of pocket editions of books.
But I digress.
The great printer Manutius is also at the heart of the goings-on at the Unbroken Spine, creator of the codex vitae, the book of life, that holds the coded answer to what Mr. Penumbra describes as our greatest question: How do you live forever?
Would you agree that that is the supreme question? I would take issue with the idea; but then, I have no interest in immortality: Do you?
But the answer to that question is what the members of the Unbroken Spine seek (though I had to wonder why, if Manutius had the answer, he was dead; and if he wasn’t dead, where was he?). And clearly all is not copacetic within the fellowship: The tension between Mr. Penumbra and Corvina seems long-standing. And Mr. Penumbra’s plan to use the resources of Google to crack the code doesn’t seem likely to ease it.
In any case, armed with his homemade GrumbleGear 3000 scanner, off Clay goes to copy Manutius’ codex vitae, and the gang returns to California to carry out Mr. Penumbra’s plan.
So now a few questions:
1. Do you think the reference to The Dragon-Song Chronicles Part II and the betrayal by the first wizard foreshadows our story?
2. Do you believe Corvina is really trying to protect Mr. Penumbra from failure, or do you think he’s trying to protect the fellowship?
3. Do you think the code is too powerful to be broken, or do you think there is no code? Is this a test of faith? What does Corvina know?
Come back next Friday to discuss the last of the book. See you then!
Part 3: The Tower and and the Epilogue (Spoiler Alert!)
With the failure of the Great Decoding Project, Clay is back at square one, or even square negative one, since Mr. Penumbra is gone, he’s on the outs with Kat, and the San Francisco Unbroken Spine novices are about to join Corvina in New York City. But for what? Is there really a code in Manutius that can be deciphered? Clay blames himself for the failures all around. (By the way, I’ve read some reviews that took author Robin Sloan to task for glorifying Google, but I didn’t get that sense; I thought he definitely expressed admiration for the company, but he skewered it as well. What do you think?)
In the meantime, The Dragon-Song Chronicles Part III—written by a member of the fellowship, Clark Moffat—seems to mirror Clay’s thoughts. In fact, he realizes the books are very much connected to the goings-on at the Unbroken Spine when he stumbles upon a clue in the audiobook, a line that was not in the printed version.
Why do you think Clay uses a written letter—a most retro form of communication if ever there was one—to get in touch with Edgar Deckle (any odes to the Unbroken Spine aside)? And doesn’t he seem disappointed when Deckle doesn’t respond in kind?
In any case, Deckle and Clay have a rather surprising video chat—surprising because (1) Deckle isn’t mad about the Google code-busting attempt, (2) he refuses to give Clay info on how to locate Mr. Penumbra, but (3) he’s willing to trade it for the completion of a seemingly impossible task: finding small pieces of Gerritszoon type stolen a hundred years ago. A crazy quest (but one that would certainly appeal to a devotee of The Dragon-Song Chronicles).
And yet, using a combination of old-fashion brainpower and newfangled computer might, the punches are located in the blandly everyday warehouses of Consolidated Universal Long-Term Storage (in a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the powerful ark itself is packed away in some anonymous government facility). It’s on his return to San Francisco from rescuing the type punches that Clay realizes what The Dragon-Song Chronicles Part III really is: the codex vitae of Clark Moffat.
Do you think it was a coincidence that Clay ended up at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore? It’s his combined knowledge of The Dragon-Song Chronicles and the Unbroken Spine that lead him to the big reveal about the code in Manutius (a reveal that’s straight out of Agatha Christie, I might add). And when that moment comes, the message that Clay delivers is sweet and smart but hardly surprising: There is no secret to immortality; we live on through our works and ideas, our thoughts and our words. And the key to life is friendship.
What did you think of the secret message from Gerritszoon? Were you expecting more? To me, the truth of it is in its utter simplicity.
At its end, we find that friendship is the key to this book, too. Just as Manutius and Gerritszoon prospered from their friendship, so did Clay prosper from his friendships and so will his pals prosper from their friendship with him. Now Clay and Mr. Penumbra will join forces and live at that juncture we read about earlier: of books and technology.
And the last five paragraphs of our story read, to me, like the author talking directly to us: as Robin Sloan, not as Clay Jannon. As someone who works in digital but clearly loves print. As someone who knows what it means to find the exact right book at the exact right time.
Bookies, this concludes not only Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore but our final book of 2012. We’ll pick up again on the other side of New Year’s, when Catherine Oddenino, the director of business development for RealSimple.com, kicks off discussion of our January book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple.
Until then, I wish you all happy, peaceful, and joyous holidays.