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'Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore'

 Posted: 2:00 AM June 14, 2013

When the Great Recession hits and Clay Jannon is cast out of his job as a graphic designer of marketing materials for NewBagel in San Francisco, he stumbles upon a mysterious bookstore and is launched on a quest that will pit digital technology against the old-fashioned world of physical paper and books.

Jannon's journey is chronicled in the clever new novel "Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan of San Francisco.

The book perfectly captures the zeitgeist of our era.

Most people are emailing, texting and using Facebook, and perhaps even dabbling in more advanced technology, yet they still have a nagging feeling of being left behind by the rapid onslaught of change.

Exciting new opportunities are opening up, while many time-honored professions — and physical books, bookstores and libraries — face possible extinction.

Perpetually distracted by other things to view on the Internet while he is supposed to be reading help-wanted ads online, Jannon decides to adopt old-school practices in his so-far fruitless job hunt.

"Whenever I walked the streets of San Francisco, I'd watch for HELP WANTED signs in the windows — which is not something you really do, right? I should probably be more suspicious of those. Legitimate employers use CraigsList," Jannon thinks.

He spots a shop sign for a 24-hour bookstore, which he is sure is a euphemism for some type of shady business, but goes in anyway. After all, when Jannon started his job search, he vowed to "only work at a company with a mission I believed in," but he's now willing to accept a job at any business, as long as it's not downright evil.

The 24-hour bookstore does, in fact, turn out to be a bookshop, and Jannon lands a job as a clerk. But the bookstore has only a tiny selection of popular books, and even fewer customers.

The customers who do come in are a peculiar lot, always checking out books from the dark, dusty back shelves of the store.

With little to do while working the night shift, Jannon — true to form — begins creating a marketing plan for the store.

Using his laptop, he taps into the unsecured wireless Internet network of the business next door (which might be a prostitution ring) and writes glowing reviews of the bookshop on review sites, sends friendly messages to bloggers, creates a Facebook page with one member and —with only $10 to spend — buys some hyper-targeted Google ads aimed at night owl book lovers who aren't allergic to dust and like Wes Anderson movies.

But one night, Jannon breaks one of the rules of the store and opens a book from the back shelves, only to discover that it is filled with writing in a secret code. The oddball customers who have been checking out these books are actually working to crack the code and reveal a secret that will change humanity forever.

Determined to use the forces of technology to crack the centuries-old code, Jannon enlists the help of his best friend Neel Shah, a startup technology company whiz, along with his new girlfriend, Kat Potente, who works for Google.

On a visit to Google's campus, Jannon sees a book scanner that is being used to scan the pages of physical books so they can be digitized and and turned into e-books. The book-scanning technician apologizes to Jannon for helping to put bookstores out of business.

Convinced that technology can still save Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and crack the mysterious code, Jannon is faced with increasingly uncomfortable and perplexing decisions as he navigates a fictional world of "old knowledge" and "new knowledge" — terms used by the Google workers — that is disturbingly similar to our own.

Reach reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.


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