Real Simple’s No-Obligation Book Club discusses Part 1 of Robin Sloan’s intriguing novel.
“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.