Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
October 2012 Indie Next List
— Andrea Aquino, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, CA
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The New York Times Bestseller
A Winner of the Alex Award, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Los Angeles Times, and San Francisco Chronicle
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anythinginstead, they "check out" large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele's behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends. But when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore's secrets extend far beyond its walls. Rendered with irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave.
Praise For Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel…
A real tour de force [and] a beautiful fable...The reader is swept along by Sloan's enthusiasm. George Saunders, BLIP Magazine
Part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem... Eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence. The New York Times Book Review
A book about passion--for books, for history, for the future...There is nothing about Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore that I didn't love. Cory Doctorow
Delightful. Graham Joyce, The Washington Post
An irresistible page-turning novel. Newsweek
One of the most thoughtful and fun reading experiences you're likely to have this year...There's so much largehearted magic in this book. NPR
A jaunty, surprisingly old-fashioned fantasy about the places where old and new ways of accessing knowledge meet...[Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore] cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy...Sloan's ultimate answer to the mystery of what keeps people solving Penumbra's puzzle is worth turning pages to find out. Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle
[A] winning literary adventure...Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age. Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
Fantastic...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. Jonathan H. Liu, Wired, GeekDad
Sloan makes bits and bytes appear beautiful. ...The rebels' journey to crack the code--grappling with an ancient cult, using secret passwords and hidden doorways--will excite anyone's inner child. The Economist
Man, is this book fun--especially for any book nerd who isn't in denial about living in the modern age. If you love physical books (the smell! The feel!) but wouldn't give up your iPhone for any reason, if you like puzzles and geeky allusions and bookish cults and quests, then this book is for you. It also glows in the dark. Emily Temple, Flavorpill
What makes Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore so impressive is Sloan's great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters. Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of wonders at which to marvel. Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday
Beguiling...The plot is as tight as nesting boxes, or whatever their digital equivalent...Sly and infectious. Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
Sloan isn't just exploring new ideas, but laying the groundwork for a new genre of literature. While the influence of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson is present, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is something all its own: a technocratic adventure where every riddle and puzzle is solved with very real gadgets, a humanizing reflection on technology that evokes the tone of a fairy tale, a brisk and brainy story imbued with such confidence that it will leave you with nothing but excitement about the things to come. Kevin Nguyen, Grantland
In a time when actual books are filling up tag-sale dollar boxes, along with VHS tapes and old beepers, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore reminds us that there is an intimate, adventurous joy in the palpable papery things called novels, and in the warm little secret societies we used to call bookstores.' Robin Sloan's novel is delightfully funny, provocative, deft, and even thrilling. And for reasons more than just nostalgia, I could not stop turning these actual pages. John Hodgman
The love child of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus and Neal Stephenson's Reamde, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a hugely enjoyable story of friendship, living, and the lure of the mysterious. It's a good-hearted, optimistic book about the meeting of modern technology and medieval mystery, a tonal road map to a positive relationship between the old world and the new. It's a book that gets it. Plus, you know: cryptographic cults, vertical bookshops, hot geeks, theft, and the pursuit of immortality. I loved it. And yes, I too would freeze my head. Nick Harkaway
Robin Sloan is a skilled architect, and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is an ingeniously designed space, full of mysteries and codes. A clever, entertaining story that also manages to be a thought-provoking meditation on progress, information and technology. Full of intelligence and humor. Charles Yu
Picador, 9781250037756, 304pp.
Publication Date: September 24, 2013
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Related to the word “umbrella,” Mr. Penumbra’s last name can refer to an area of partial illumination (especially in astronomy) or something that serves as a shroud. What makes his bookstore a source of light, even though it operates in the shadows?
2. What were your initial theories about the bookstore’s mysterious patrons and their project? What did you predict Manutius’s message would be?
3. At the heart of the novel is the collision of old-world handwork and the automated digital age.
How do Clay and Mat build a bridge between these two worlds?
4. Discuss Clay’s pursuit of love. What makes Kat attractive to him? What does it take to win her over?
5. The characters remind us that fifteenth-century technologies of the book—from punch- cutting to typesetting—were met with fear and resistance, as well as with entrepreneurial competition and the need to teach new skills. How does this compare to the launch of e-books? If you try to picture what literacy will look like five hundred years from now, what do you see?
6. If you were to file a codex vitae, capturing all you’ve learned throughout your life, what would it contain?
7. As Clay and the team of Google decoders take on the same challenge, what do they discover about the relative strengths of the human brain and technology?
8. Neel’s financial backing makes it possible for Clay to outwit Corvina and the Festina Lente Company, despite its many lucrative enterprises. In this novel, what can money buy, and what are the limitations of wealth?
9. Clay’s literary idol, Clark Moffat, was forced to make a choice between the Unbroken Spine project and his commercially successful fiction. If you had been Moffat, which path would you have chosen?
10. Are Penumbra and his colleagues motivated only by a quest for immortality? If not, what are the other rewards of their labor-intensive work? Can books give their authors immortality?
11. How did you react to Gerritszoon’s “message to eternity,” revealed in the closing passages? How can his wisdom apply to your life?
12. Discuss the physical traits of your copy of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Do you have a hard copy or an ebook, and where did you buy it? How does the design of the book enhance your reading experience?
13. Clay grapples with the fact that e-books could make brick-and-mortar bookstores unnecessary. How have your community’s bookstores fared in recent years? Did the novel reassure you about the role of technology in the lives of book lovers?