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October 31st, 2012 MATT BUCKINGHAM | Books
 

Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Don’t be evil?

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Author Robin Sloan’s paean to books—both digital and on paper—is filled with elements so plausible readers will want to Google them to see whether they’re real. And that’s fitting, because Google—not just the search engine, but the company—plays a key role in solving the mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages, $25).

In the Great Recession, Clay Jannon loses his job as a Web designer for a startup bagel company and takes the night shift at a 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco. Funny thing is, the bookstore rarely sells any books. Instead, eccentric clients borrow books one at a time from the “Waybacklist,” a collection of one-of-a-kind volumes all printed in code and stored on bookshelves stretching three stories high in the back of the store.

Suspicious of the bookstore’s true purpose, tech-savvy Clay builds a 3-D computer model of the store and uses a Google scan of one of the store’s logbooks to track the order in which customers check out the books. The results reveal a puzzle that will take Clay and his allies on a quest from California to New York and points in between.

Along the way, Sloan creates characters and institutions that blend seamlessly with the real world of Google and a Renaissance printer named Aldus Manutius. There’s The Dragon-Song Chronicles, a series of fantasy novels Clay loved as a boy that now offers clues to the mystery; a typeface called Gerritszoon that’s used in everything from Microsoft Windows to the Amazon Kindle; a computerized inventory of the world’s museums called the Accession Table; and Consolidated Universal Long-Term Storage, a vast warehouse in Nevada where museums store 90 percent of their stuff (and whose initials spell “cults,” although nobody in the book seems to notice).

Even Sloan’s conception of Google Inc. cleverly mixes the real with the possibly imagined: In addition to developing a driverless car (real), employees of the Mountain View, Calif., computing giant eat their lunch on tables covered in graph paper (company spokesmen could not be reached to confirm this). 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a light autumn read about the value of good friends and good books in a menacingly technological world. It combines the elaborate puzzle-solving of The Da Vinci Code with the sense of childlike wonder evoked by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Mr. Penumbra, meet Mr. Wonka.


GO: Robin Sloan speaks at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Friday, Nov. 2. 7:30 pm. Free.

 
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