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Features

November 27, 2012

Book unlocks secret world

In America today the popular word for the good life is “happiness”… The American pursuit of happiness can often look like a compulsive, joyless effort to escape boredom, and in any case, a people blessed with far more material advantages than any other society has ever enjoyed is not clearly the happiest people on earth. One plain reason is…what I have called the highest standard of low living in all history. But this only forces the basic question. What then is the good life?

— Herbert J. Muller, 1970

•  •  •

What happens when the last secret of human life is so powerful that a computer cannot decode it? New hire, Clay Jannon, works the graveyard shift at “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore,” the title of a new whiz-kid techie novel by futurist Robin Sloan (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012). The store’s customers never buy a book. Instead, they come in the middle of the night, anxious to check out the next volume from the back of the bookstore, a magical place whose shelves reach up three stories tall. The books are catalogued on Penumbra’s old Mac Plus, but he has also instructed Clay to meticulously record all information about each transaction, including the customer’s mental state and what he was wearing, down to the buttons, in a magnificent old tome. And one more instruction, never, ever look inside the books in the Wayback list.

Clay is a self-appointed loser who has fallen victim to the 2009 technology downturn. His last job as Web designer and Twitter monitor for a former Google tycoon has given him the skills to navigate the world of computer encryption, including recognizing the many fonts used in digital typesetting. At night, he begins building a computer model of Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, intending to market the store’s contents on the Web.

But when his roommate, Matt, who works at Industrial Light and Magic making movie animatronics, dares him to look inside one of the books, they find nothing but a jumble of undifferentiated letters in an unknown typeface Clay has never seen. Enter Kat, cute girl genius and Google researcher. Together they follow clues to decoding the obscure script, but even Google’s high-powered programs cannot unlock its mystery. Answers come with a secret book society and the story’s adventuresome denouement.

This is a lighthearted romance with the book, a modern tale for people who love their Kindle, but are still inextricably tied to paper print. Fans of J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Umberto Eco will find a carefree read in “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.” For a more serious take on our digital future, read Herbert J. Muller’s comprehensive and thought-provoking treatise, “The Children of Frankenstein: A Primer on Modern Technology and Human Values,” circa 1970. It says it all.

Mr. Penumbra’s Bookstore is set in San Francisco, home of classic Bay Area cuisine. Try a few of these recipes from San Francisco’s chefs for your Thanksgiving leftovers.

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