I’ve long declared my love for physical books (though I grudgingly acknowledge the advantages of ebooks while traveling), but I also love gadgets and technology and the incredible potential the future holds. Here’s a novel that takes all of that and wraps it up into a fantastic story: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.
Sloan’s book grew out of a short story, which in turn was inspired by a tweet. You can read the short story on his website, but if you’re at all interested in the book I would recommend skipping the story for now — there are significant changes, but I like the more gradual discovery that happens in the book.
Clay Jannon is a young art school graduate, currently jobless and with no experience or portfolio except for the logo he designed for the now-defunct Bay Area bagel startup. As he’s wandering the streets reading the classified ads in the papers (because online job-searching inevitably leads to hours of unrelated web-surfing), he comes across a bizarre little shop with a Help Wanted sign. It’s a 24-hour bookstore next door to a strip club, and Clay is sure that “24-hour bookstore” must be a euphemism for something. But he’s desperate for work, so in he goes.
He’s greeted by Mr. Penumbra himself, a tall, skinny man who matches the tall, skinny store: “What do you seek in these shelves?” What he finds, of course, is much more than he bargained for.
The store has an eclectic collection — no teenage wizards or vampire police — and nearly no customers. But the bulk of the store consists of immense vertical shelves full of dusty books, several stories high, which Clay dubs the “Waybacklist.” And pretty much the only customers that ever come into the store are very bizarre characters, returning a book to the Waybacklist in order to check out another.
Clay has no idea how the store makes money, or who these people are, and one of his instructions from Mr. Penumbra is never to open a book from the Waybacklist. Eventually, though, curiosity wins, and he discovers that the store is a front for a book-based code-breaking secret society that dates back to the earliest printing presses, and he dives into the rabbit hole.
I won’t give away too much more about the central mystery, but Clay ends up attacking the mystery of the books with digital tools. Google figures prominently in the book, as do book scanners, data visualization, distributed processing, and the singularity. Do these ancient books hold the secret to immortality, and will it rely on the Cloud?
Like Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is filled with ideas and technology that may or may not exist yet but seem mostly plausible. Hadoop does really allow you to take a complex problem and distribute it to thousands of computers for processing; Amazon’s Mechanical Turk does the same thing with human workers. Google does really have a book scanner — but is it the whizzing spider-armed device that Sloan describes? Is there actually a giant warehouse of museum artifacts with entire shelves that move around autonomously? Some of the things that take place (particularly those involving Google) are just on the edge of possibility: if they’re not true, then they could very well become true soon enough.
At the same time, the book speaks to the idea that Google, despite what we might think, doesn’t know everything. Raj, one of the Google employees in the book, is obsessed with OK and TK: Old Knowledge and Traditional Knowledge. It’s the stuff that hasn’t been digitized, stuff that’s in old books or still in people’s heads, and it makes up a huge percentage of human knowledge. Raj’s claim that “ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years” might be an exaggeration (or maybe not?), but the truth is that there’s a lot of stuff that you just can’t find online … yet. Case in point: I actually heard about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in the September issue of Wired Magazine, in a brief column by Rachel Swaby. I can’t link you to it, because it’s not there (yet). I don’t even have the magazine anymore because I already recycled it, and it took me a long time even to track down which issue it was in.
I loved diving into the world that Sloan created, both the high-tech fantasyland of Google and the ancient analog society. It’s packed full of geeky allusions and wonderful characters, and is a celebration of books, whether they’re made of dead trees or digits. I will point out, though, that if you get the hardcover version of the book, the dust jacket glows in the dark — something you won’t find on your Kindle.