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Reading and Detection in the Age of Google

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Writers, publishers, and analysts love to set print and digital books at loggerheads but rarely have any fun with it. Many could learn from Robin Sloan's entertaining vision of how the two might meet. Sloan's new novel, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), is an absorbing fantasia of multimedia puzzle-solving, a detective story starring a medieval publisher, an ubiquitous typeface, and everyone's favorite not-evil corporation. This is a book well worth reading for middle and high schoolers who enjoy quests, making things, solving puzzles, and tinkering with computers.

Penumbra is a slowly unfolding mystery set in the very recent past, with Clay Jannon, a RISD grad freshly laid off from a San Francisco bagel design startup, as our detective and guide. He's no Marlowe, though—he's too optimistic, not confused enough. Neither savant nor hard-boiled gumshoe nor student of psychology, Clay resembles more the Everyman hero of folklore.

Clay stumbles upon the titular bookstore while wandering far from home—a natural connection appears to exist between the fugue states of urban walking and immersive, absorbing reading—and lands the night clerk shift. The Bookstore is an intimidating space, taller than it's wide with shelves receding into darkness like "an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight's reach." A host of mysterious, coded volumes occupy the shelves in back, what Clay comes to call the Waybacklist. Despite his initial trepidation, curiosity about the Waybacklist draws him into further exploration of the stacks and the revelation of a centuries-old and very knotty puzzle.

Clay's arsenal of detection methods is a combination of data processing and visualization tools and old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger maneuvering. Readers have noted the oddness of super-contemporary references throughout the book to actual tech tools. Because advancing the plot hinges upon such tools, the references avoid coming across as brand-name dropping. It's funny to think that Penumbra may one day (soon?) be considered historical fiction, as certain tools & resources become dated. One hopes and imagines, however, that the story will remain evergreen.

At heart, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is about how curiosity and resourcefulness can be the antidotes to obsessive, dogmatic behavior surrounding reading, books, and knowledge. Clay makes use of any and all puzzle-solving tools available, completely format-agnostic in his consuming quest to know the truth. He and his cohort must avoid traps like fear of technology (books and computers alike!) and coveting knowledge (not sharing, but hoarding it, or glorying in its discovery).

Generally speaking, Clay and his friends are for sharing knowledge, though they don't exactly see this as a subversive attitude. As the beneficiaries of shared resources from friends and strangers, they feel it's only right to pay forward (or back) by sharing in a similar fashion. Sloan deftly avoids the trap of equating books with unfairly gated knowledge and Google-digitized text with liberation.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a snapshot of our current flavor of ambiguity with regard to the rapid pace of technological progress. It's also a fable in which quick wits and friendship (particularly friendship with the wizardly) trump narrow thinking of all kinds.

The plot centers around a mystery, but there are countless word- and number-based puzzles hidden in the text, too; all the more reason to read, re-read, and follow the clues. Sloan recently joined Goodreads for a video chat in which he reflected upon reading in the age of Google. Like many of us, he considers books to be portals into innumerable other worlds: "Think of books as little starting points for people—who knows where they'll end up?" The ability to search the web makes this more possible than ever.

On the print-digital debate, Sloan said, "From where I'm sitting, it's not a cannibalistic, 'every e-book sold is a print book killed.' It's more about options." Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore may be all about reading in the age of Google, but it seems Sloan has thought quite a bit about writing in the age of Google as well. Teaching or reading Penumbra alongside related material—reviews, interviews, and reader reactions, for example—could help cultivate a richer understanding of the hidden structure written into the book, yet another set of puzzles for young readers to tackle.

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