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Friday, December 19, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

This month we wrapped up a great year of discussions with a party, a discussion about our discussions, and an actual book discussion of a wonderful treat of a story for book lovers everywhere-- Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

Here is the publisher's description:
A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore. 
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore. 
With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.
On to the discussion, but first, this discussion contains SPOILERS [sorry]:

  • We had 3 outright likes, 0 dislikes, and 10 so-sos, but pretty much every single so-so was leaning toward like.  As we discussed multiple people said they would probably switch to like. Details on why we voted the way we did:
    • I got a little bored in the middle but I really liked the first and final thirds a lot.  There were many seconds to this thought
    • I thought there was too much technology.
    • But I loved that part.  Also Kat, as the lead techie was a fantastic character and such a strong and positive female presence in a male dominated world. 
    • I moved from so-so to like because of the ending. The old and new knowledge coming together to show us a message of the power of friendship across the centuries was beautiful, unexpected, and just awesome.
    • The writing was "a little too cute" for me.
    • But, chimed in another person, Clay is that too cute guy.  He is young and looking for himself, and he is our narrator.
    • I could tell it was a debut novel. 
    • It is such a visual novel; it would make a great movie.
    • Yes, I would love to see the scene when Google is taken down for 3 seconds.
  • Question: What are these characters searching for-- both literally and metaphorically?
    • Manutius-- it was his body in the coffin [or lack of it] that began this search in the 1500s. By the 21st century it is so muddled that as readers we are often muddled and confused.
    • Yes, this might explain why the middle was so hard for me.  It did feel muddled, but maybe that was on purpose. The clarity of the ending felt so good as a reader.
    • Clay walks in as a middle man.  He is a outsider who has friends on both sides of the debate-- the all out techies and those who study things from the past and everyone in the middle.  It is his position in the middle, as someone who has not found himself yet, that makes it possible for him to come in, clear up, and solve this 500 year old mystery.
    • Clay uses old and new knowledge seamlessly. He made people on both sides work together.
    • I loved that he used all of his friends to solve a 500 year old puzzle and in the end the puzzle's answer was that friendship is the key to everything in life.  It made the book so much more poignant that I thought it would be as I was reading it.
    • The ending was a little too happy for me.  But, said someone else, I think it needed the happy ending to prove they all learned the message and could agree to live less on the fringes and extremes and use old and new knowledge together.
    • The search felt so real and important. I was following all of the clues and the adventure literally.  But then, at one point I wrote in my notes-- stop taking everything so literally.
    • Yes, I think the entire story is meant to be an allegory about how we need to pool all of our knowledge as humans-- the old and the new-- and use it to live our lives.  And, it is also an allegory about the power of friendship. You can get more done together than alone.  Look at all of those people trying to break the code alone; for 500 years they were unsuccessful. But together--friends pooling expertise and using old and new knowledge-- succeed.
    • I loved the parallels drawn to the structure of Epic Fantasy novels. Those are always about different creatures coming together to solve some ancient problem.
    • I liked how Mr. Penumbra himself cared the least about the bookstore. He always cared more about the message and the puzzle. Once Manutius' book was decoded, he was fulfilled.
  • Question: Let's talk about the history of old and new printing and books.
    • I loved all the information about the early days of printing. I looked up info on Griffo, Gerritszoon font and Manutius to learn more. All the info in this novel is true. I learned so much.
    • The little touches, sneaking in little inside jokes.  For example, Manutius' printing seal had a dolphin and an anchor and the bar they go to in NYC is named The Dolphin and the Anchor.  There were lots of these examples.  I want to read the book again, now that I know more, and find more of them.
    • I loved how this book provided a history of reading portrayed through the different characters.  From the old ways of the reading room all the way up to ebooks with many in-betweens. 
    • Even audio books are included. Those scenes were great.
    • It is like the author is saying with this book-- Just read! Who cares how.
    • If I had read this book last month instead of this month, it would have been my main present for all of my friends.
    • This is also about the history of movable type since its invention.
    • Could someone from 500 years ago take this book and, if they knew modern English, understand how to read it?  Yes. The technology of printing it has changed, but the action of reading a book has not.  Even an ebook.  If you gave that person the Kindle they could figure it out.  The act of reading a typed book has not changed very much.
    • What about 500 years from now? Well, they could have a way to simply insert an entire book into our brain and give us the info in an instant.  That would be very different...and less fun.
  • Question: What does this novel say about the idea of immortality?
    • Gerritszoon typeface makes Groffo immortal. And, his message is wisdom about the meaning of life.  Interestingly, his message about the importance of friendship is the key to his immortality.  It took a group of friends to solve it, and it took a group to save the book over the centuries.
    • So while no one rose from the grave as the Bound [cult] thought, they are all immortal because of their codex vitae they all left behind.
    • Manutius had to have faith in the technology of movable type to hope that his coded book would survive.
    • We talked about different ways to be immortal. One participant shared how she feels she lives on in the students she taught. Another shared how they pass on traditions from dead relatives to the next generation and share information about the relative who started the tradition. That is a way to be immortal [while actually dead] too.
    • Kat is the character who is interested the most in literally living forever.
    • But even Kat can see that Griffo is immortal in one way and dead in another.
    • Different characters in the book give different views on what it means to be immortal.
  • Question:  Let's talk about the idea of a codex vitae:
    • I love this idea of writing down all that you've learned throughout your life in one book.
    • We compared a codex vitae to journaling.  In our group there were 6 serious journalers. They shared what it means to them to take time to reflect upon their lives on a regular basis.
      • When I journal, I am not always writing about what I learned, but more about my feelings or ideas I have had.
      • If I don't journal my head gets confused. I need to get it out.
    • One participant shared how her Dad wrote a diary most of his life and she has those diaries.  She reads them often. "I have begun to relive his life and integrate it into what I remember as a kid." So cool.
    • One member shared her personal codex vitae: Love Fully, Seek "Truth," Distrust "Truth." Keep on learning. She said the middle parts are borrowed from someone else.
  • Question: What does the title mean?
    • Penumbra refers to an area of partial illumination, or something that serves as a shroud.
    • It is the night-shift people who make all of the difference in the solving of the puzzle (Clay and Moffat and Deckle).
    • Penumbra gives the curious clerks just enough light to shine through the darkness and let them be great.
    • This light is also eternal because it is 24-Hours.
    • Also the answer to the puzzle is eternal.
    • Yet the eternally open, 24-Hour bookstore does close and turn into a climbing gym. Hmmm?
    • Also, our paperback copies glow in the dark.  We had so much fun turning off the lights to sit in the dark and look at them.
  • Final thoughts time:
    • I loved the comment by Kat that we don't have the same brains as we did 1,000 years ago.  We have the same hardware but completely different software.
    • Reading takes you away. When Clay was in the reading room and lost track of time, that is what this book did to me.
    • Sloan did a great job of portraying big ideas, but he also had great small details in here too.
  • Words of phrases to sum up the book:
    • Immortality
    • Friendship
    • Meaning of Life
    • Reading
    • Illuminating
    • Old and new
    • Technology
    • History
    • Thought Provoking
    • Multi-Generational
    • Great Characters
    • Attention to Detail
    • Big Ideas
    • Visual
Readalikes: As you can see from the discussion, this book leads you in so many different, yet equally as interesting locations.  As a result, there are many readalike suggestions to provide.

The very first book I thought of when reading Mr. Penumbra was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Click here for my review of this great book.  Both involve a reluctant hero on a quest to solve a puzzle using a cadre of friends with varying talents to succeed. This would be the best overall readalike.

For those who like the love of books angle here are some good options.

For those who like the technology/cyber angle try:
For those who like the Epic Fantasy angles and parallels drawn here should try:
Finally, a book that came to mind as we discussed [that I shared with the group] is A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.  This is one of my all time favorite books, and would be of the most interest to those interested in the parts of Mr. Penumbra that deal with immortality.

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