LOST IN THE SHADOWS of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there—the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.
I am holding on for dear life, one hand on the ladder, the other on the lip of a shelf, fingers pressed white. My eyes trace a line above my knuckles, searching the spines—and there, I spot it. The book I’m looking for.
But let me back up.
* * *
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 add it to my reading list. 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.
I was unemployed, a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, leaving bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake.
The job I lost was at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, which was based not in New York or anywhere else with a tradition of bagel-making but instead here in San Francisco. The company was very small and very new. It was founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle. It was my first job out of art school, and I started as a designer, making marketing materials to explain and promote this tasty toroid: menus, coupons, diagrams, posters for store windows, and, once, an entire booth experience for a baked-goods trade show.
There was lots to do. First, one of the ex-Googlers asked me to take a crack at redesigning the company’s logo. It had been big bouncy rainbow letters inside a pale brown circle; it looked pretty MS Paint. I redesigned if using a newish typeface with sharp black serifs that I thought sort of evoked the boxes and daggers of Hebrew letters. It gave NewBagel some gravitas and it won me an award from San Francisco’s AIGA chapter. Then, when I mentioned to the other ex-Googler that I knew how to code (sort of), she put me in charge of the website. So I redesigned that, too, and then managed a small marketing budget keyed to search terms like “bagel” and “breakfast” and “topology.” I was also the voice of @NewBagel on Twitter and attracted a few hundred followers with a mix of breakfast trivia and digital coupons.
None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things. I was moving up. But then the economy took a dip, and it turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they’re sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.
The ex-Googlers were accustomed to success and they would not go quietly. They quickly rebranded to become the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company and abandoned the algorithm entirely so the bagels started coming out blackened and irregular. They instructed me to make the website look old-timey, a ta
“A real tour de force [and] a beautiful fable...The reader is swept along by Sloan’s enthusiasm.”—George Saunders, BLIP Magazine
“Part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem... Eminently enjoyable, full of warmth and intelligence.”—The New York Times Book Review
“A book about passion—for books, for history, for the future...There is nothing about Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore that I didn’t love.”—Cory Doctorow
“Delightful.” —Graham Joyce, The Washington Post
“An irresistible page-turning novel.” —Newsweek
“One of the most thoughtful and fun reading experiences you’re likely to have this year...There’s so much largehearted magic in this book.”—NPR
“A jaunty, surprisingly old-fashioned fantasy about the places where old and new ways of accessing knowledge meet...[Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore] cleverly uses the technological age in the service of its fantasy...Sloan’s ultimate answer to the mystery of what keeps people solving Penumbra’s puzzle is worth turning pages to find out.”—Tess Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] winning literary adventure...Sloan grounds his jigsawlike plot with Big Ideas about the quest for permanence in the digital age.”—Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly
“Fantastic...I loved diving into the world that Sloan created, both the high-tech fantasyland of Google and the ancient analog society. It’s packed full of geeky allusions and wonderful characters, and is a celebration of books, whether they’re made of dead trees or digits.”—Jonathan H. Liu, Wired, GeekDad
“Sloan makes bits and bytes appear beautiful. ...The rebels’ journey to crack the code—grappling with an ancient cult, using secret passwords and hidden doorways—will excite anyone’s inner child.”—The Economist
“Man, is this book fun—especially for any book nerd who isn’t in denial about living in the modern age. If you love physical books (the smell! The feel!) but wouldn’t give up your iPhone for any reason, if you like puzzles and geeky allusions and bookish cults and quests, then this book is for you. It also glows in the dark.”—Emily Temple, Flavorpill
“What makes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore so impressive is Sloan’s great gift for storytelling and his cast of brilliant, eccentric characters. Think of this novel as part Haruki Murakami, part Dan Brown and part Joseph Cornell: a surreal adventure, an existential detective story and a cabinet of wonders at which to marvel.”—Carmela Ciuraru, Newsday
“Beguiling...The plot is as tight as nesting boxes, or whatever their digital equivalent...Sly and infectious.”—Karen R. Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Sloan isn’t just exploring new ideas, but laying the groundwork for a new genre of literature. While the influence of Neal Stephenson and William Gibson is present, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is something all its own: a technocratic adventure where every riddle and puzzle is solved with very real gadgets, a humanizing reflection on technology that evokes the tone of a fairy tale, a brisk and brainy story imbued with such confidence that it will leave you with nothing but excitement about the things to come.”—Kevin Nguyen, Grantland
“In a time when actual books are filling up tag-sale dollar boxes, along with VHS tapes and old beepers, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore reminds us that there is an intimate, adventurous joy in t