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Pages

'Mr. Penumbra' Bridges The Digital Divide

Oct 9, 2012
Originally published on October 9, 2012 11:25 am

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.

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hey, let's meet an author now who loves to show that worlds can collide and survive. Robin Sloan's first novel is called "Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Book Store." It is the story of an unemployed digital designer who finds work in an unexpected place: a dusty old bookstore. As the story unfolds, the reader learns how taking time to pause and appreciate what you love can be the secret to making it in this dizzying, tech-driven world.

Our colleague David Greene spent time chatting with the author.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: In many ways, this book was a natural step for Robin Sloan. He has spent time writing short stories and time working for Twitter, where he described his job as something to do with figuring out the future of media. If you've heard of him, it might be because of his "Fish" tap essay. It's a short story of sorts that's designed to be read on your Smart phone. I began by asking Robin Sloan to tell me about Clay, the protagonist in his new novel.

ROBIN SLOAN: Clay is a pretty common character here in San Francisco. He went to art school, and then came out here to California to make his fortune or something, and had a brief gig as a Web designer, but then, but like a lot of other people in the great recession, kind of lost that share in the economy as the music stopped, and had to figure out what else to do.

And so as the novel opens, he's kind casting about, looking on Craigslist and even scouring the streets looking for Help Wanted ads, trying to figure out, like, what he's going to do to pay his rent and what he's going to do with his life.

GREENE: Well, I do want to have you read a little bit from the opening of the book to give us a sense of Clay. I'll have you read from where he was sitting at his kitchen table looking for a job.

SLOAN: (Reading) My name is Clay Jannon, and those were the days when I rarely touched paper. I'd sit at my kitchen table and start scanning help wanted ads on my laptop, but then a browser tab would blink and I'd get distracted and follow a link to a long magazine article about genetically modified wine grapes - too long, actually, so I'd just add it my reading list.

(Reading) Then I'd follow another link to a book review. I'd add the review to my reading list, too, then download the first chapter of the book, third in a series about vampire police. Then, help wanted ads forgotten, I'd retreat to the living room, put my laptop on my belly and read all day. I had a lot of free time.

GREENE: I feel like he's someone we can all relate to. I mean, I remember times opening my laptop and, within 15 minutes, I'm reading something about sports and have no idea why in the world I opened my computer.

SLOAN: Well, you know, 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. And it's this crazy emerging problem that - we don't know how to manage it, or how to put it all in order.

GREENE: Robin, one of the other characters in the book is a young woman, Kat, who works in the crazy atmosphere at Google. Tell me what role she plays in the book.

SLOAN: Well, there is another kind of, sort of, character here in San Francisco that's becoming more and more common, and it's the great Renaissance man and woman - you know, somebody who can design, somebody who can code and somebody who, frankly, is really at the heart of these enterprises, really driving them forward.

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. So I decided to make her a woman, and I decided to make her work at Google. And that's Kat.

GREENE: And so without giving too much away, Kat goes with Clay on this adventure. It involves using Kat's modern tools at Google to try and crack a secret code that members of a cult have been trying to solve for, oh, say, 500 years. The message from the novel is the same one that Robin Sloan has been determined to send in all aspects of his career: Soaking up all the technology and gadgets of this modern day does not mean that we have to say goodbye to the values we hold dear from the past.

SLOAN: And so I wanted to do something that kind of bounced back and forth between the real world and the virtual world, and the new and the old, in that way.

GREENE: You bring them together, actually, in the "Fish" app. And I do want to take a quick aside and tell people about that briefly who don't know about it. I'm looking in my iPhone right now, and your "Fish" app, I mean, it's not really an app. It's not really an essay. It's really all together, and you just sort of read your words and you just keep tapping to go to the next thing. And it kind of mesmerizes you. What were you trying to do with this?

SLOAN: You know, it's actually very similar to what I was trying to do with the novel, because 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.

You know, if you make a webpage and somebody sticks around for three minutes, that's a huge success. So in the book and in the app, in the iPhone app, I was just trying to create things that would kind of capture people's attention and maybe give them a reason to stick around and engage with something for, you know, 15 minutes or 30 minutes or three hours or three days.

GREENE: You're saying that novelists these days need to work harder to keep people inside a book because of the crazy world around them and all the distractions.

SLOAN: Well, I think it's hard to get them in, but I think it's one of the wonderful things about the novel, is that once you've them, you know, once you've got people interested for whatever reason, I think it's actually one of the last great holdouts of continuous, deep attention. You know, when I'm using the Internet, I have 25 tabs open, and even if somebody sends me, looking something interesting, odds are I'll forget about it or it'll get kind of lost in the shuffle.

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. Good writing is really meaningful, and it's one of the - it's still one of the best tools we have to get and capture people's attention.

GREENE: Why does your book glow in the dark?

(LAUGHTER)

SLOAN: Well, you know, when you're making a print book in 2012, I actually think that the onus is on you and on your publisher to make something that's worth buying in its physical edition, because there's no arguing, you know, things like Kindles and Nooks and iPads are pretty cool and pretty convenient. So if I'm going to tell somebody that they ought to go buy a physical book, I think I've got to give them a really good reason.

GREENE: The challenge will be if there's a glow-in-the-dark Kindle, then you'll have to come up with something else for the next one.

SLOAN: That's right.

GREENE: Robin Sloan is the author or "Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore." It's his first novel. Robin, thanks so much for joining us.

SLOAN: Hey, it's been a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.