Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Thumbs Up for Mr. Penumbra:
October Reading Club Meeting

The High School reading club met in the library last Friday to discuss Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookshop, the 2013 Alex Award novel from Twitter "media inventor" Robin Sloan, which all attendees really enjoyed.  This post originally went up as a way to display info about the book during the meeting -- I've added commentary about the reading club discussion and what the various bits and pieces mean.

Some background on the author

Author Robin Sloan writes about himself on his website:
I grew up near Detroit and went to school at Michigan State, where I studied economics and co-founded a literary magazine called Oats. Between 2002 and 2012, I worked at Poynter, Current TV, and Twitter, and at all those places, my job had something to do with figuring out the future of media.

I’m the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which started as a short story right here and is now a full-length novel from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

I believe that stories told primarily (but not exclusively) with words are among the most durable things a person can produce, and I’m trying my best to write a few that might make it through to the year 2112. If you read one and pass it along to someone else, you’re participating in that project—so, thank you!


We watched part of this talk (embedded below) by Robin Sloan, starting at about 4 mins 24 secs, and going to about 10:05.  In this part he talks about how he gathers ideas, his approach to writing, and the philosophies of "lightness:" of inspiration, of motion, of digital, and the lightness of AND.

After the clip, we looked for expressions of these lightnesses in the book --
  • the initial inspiration for the short story, which later became a novel, sprang from a Tweet -- "thanks to Rachel Leow for a tweet on November 15, 2008: “just misread ‘24hr bookdrop’ as ‘24hr bookshop’. the disappointment is beyond words.”
  • Sloan's Latin motto, Solvitur Ambulando, "it is solved by walking" connects to the Unbroken Spine's motto Festina Lente, "make haste slowly"
  • digital is everywhere in the book, from Google to Skype, to FaceTime to digital scanners and on and on.  In addition to the online short story, Sloan has also penned a Kindle Single short novella, Ajax Penumbra 1969.  This backstory of a seller of ancient books is only available as a digital download, but the cover of the physical book glows in the dark!  It's just not the same on an electronic reader . . .
  • and of course, the whole book is about the "Lightness of And."  Digital and paper, the past and the future, people and machines, art and engineering. And . . .

Why We Should Leave Our Fingerprints For the Future 
-- Robin Sloan (DoLectures, January 2013)


Even though Clay Jannon is the narrator and presumably the central character of the novel, he took up very little of our conversation.  Mr. Penumbra is the star of the story, and Mat, Kat, Neel and a few other characters are more vibrant and attention-catching than Clay.  Penumbra means "almost a shadow,"  and we talked about how Mr. Penumbra is a bridge between the old ways and the new. Clay is also a bridge, between Mat's art and Ashley's perfection,  between not-exactly-a-feminist Neel and women's art, between Mr. Penumbra and the digital future. Most importantly, he's an ordinary everyday guy who's the  catalyst for amazing events and discoveries.


A couple of renditions of the symbol of the Unbroken Spine.


There is no pub in New York called the Dolphin and Anchor (though there ought to be), but the real Aldus Manutius used an emblem of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, and the motto Festina Lente, as his printer's mark.  Aha! someone in the group said -- dolphins are speedy and anchors slow you down.


What's the relationship between a modern day CV (a scholar's Curriculum Vitae) and the codex vitae written by Unbroken Spine scholars?  What's a codex?


The one thing I'm kicking myself for is not realizing soon enough the possibility that Robin Sloan might do a Skype visit with the club.  He says right on his website that he loves that opportunity.  Drat and double drat!  Perhaps we can have a special "encore" meeting with the author???


Stay tuned for the next reading club selection.  We're choosing among Beautiful Ruins, The Art of Racing in the Rain, Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, World War Z, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

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