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'Mr. Penumbra' Bridges The Digital Divide

Author Robin Sloan has spent time on both sides of the digital divide, both as a short-story writer and an employee at Twitter — where he described his job as "something to do with figuring out the future of media."

Sloan's first novel is called Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore. It's the story of an unemployed digital designer, named Clay, who finds work in an unexpected place: a dusty old bookstore. "Clay is a pretty common character here in San Francisco," Sloan tells NPR's David Greene. "He went to art school, and then came out here to California to make his fortune — or something."

As the novel opens, Clay's job has become a casualty of the recession, and he's casting around for anything that will help him stay afloat — when he's not getting distracted by interesting articles he finds online. "It's the great agony and the ecstasy of the Internet today. I think we have more great stuff to read than we ever have before, but of course the downside of that is we have more great stuff to read than we've ever had before," Sloan laughs.

Clay falls for a young woman named Kat, who works at Google and who embodies another San Francisco archetype — the Renaissance man (or woman), who can do just about anything. "Somebody who can design, somebody who can code, and somebody who frankly is really at the heart of these enterprises, really driving them forward," says Sloan. "And so I wanted to kind of paint that character, and help people understand why a programmer could be a really cool character, and in fact, kind of the most compelling, charismatic character in the whole story."

Without giving too much away, we can say that Kat joins Clay on an adventure through a sort of literary underground centered on the titular bookstore. They use Kat's modern Google tools to try to crack a code that members of the underground have been struggling with for centuries without success. And at the center of the book is a message: Embracing modern digital technology doesn't mean giving up the values of the past. "I wanted to do something that kind of bounced back and forth between the real world and the virtual world, the new and the old," Sloan says.

Robin Sloan is a writer living in California.<em> Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore </em>is his first novel.
Helena Price / Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Robin Sloan is a writer living in California. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is his first novel.

This isn't the first time Sloan has undertaken that kind of project. Some readers may recognize him as the author of the iPhone app Fish, which was essentially an essay on liking and loving things on the Internet, delivered in multiple fonts and colors that force the reader to slow down and consider each screen carefully.

"If you come from the Internet, as I do — I think of it as sort of my native country — there's a lot of great things happening on the Internet, but one of the things, one of the feelings you just can't escape is the sense that it's really hard to keep people's attention," Sloan says. So both the book and the Fish app were an effort to capture people's attention and give them a reason to engage.

Books, says Sloan, are among the last things to which people pay continuous, deep attention. "When I'm using the Internet, I have 25 tabs open, and even if somebody sends me ... something interesting, odds are I'll forget about it, or it'll get kind of lost in the shuffle," he says. "Whereas if I find a book, especially a novel, and I make that decision to kind of sit down with it and start it, I think it gets a kind of attention, a quality of attention that's actually really rare these days."

And, by the way, it's pretty easy to pay attention to Mr. Penumbra — the cover glows in the dark. "When you're making a print book in 2012, I actually think the onus is on you, and on your publisher, to make something that's worth buying in its physical edition."

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