Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
Page Count: 288 pages
Genre: Tech Fiction, Adult Fiction for Teens
Tone: Likeable, Quirky, Offbeat
Summary: The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco web-design drone and landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, and never seem to actually buy anything. Soon he ropes his friends into helping him figure out just what’s going on.
SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
The Library is happy to share these original questions for your use. If reproducing, please credit with the following statement: 2018 Mount Prospect Public Library. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.
1. Why did Ajax Penumbra hire Clay?
2. What is the purpose of recording everything about the customer’s physical features? (p. 19, “…were there button on his coat made of mother-of-pearl? Or were they horn? Some kind of metal? Copper?”)
3. What do you think of Clay? Was he an accessible protagonist? How was he uniquely able to help Mr. Penumbra on his quest?
4. How does the novel deal with old and new technology? What do you think about that?
5. As the “information superhighway” began to really take off, many predicted that there would no longer be any use for libraries. What do you think about that? What has happened? Can the old ways coexist with the new? What does the book say about the idea that you can find everything on Google?
6. What did you think was happening in the bookstore? Did you think there was something nefarious happening?
7. What role does Corvina play in the story? What does he represent? How do you feel about him? Is he right to act as he does?
8. Kat introduces the concept of Singularity – “the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization” – on p. 58 (Wikipedia). She says you have to be an optimist. Is our feeling toward the future regarding technology’s role dependent upon how optimistic or pessimistic we are?
9. Mr. Penumbra tells Clay he didn’t know young people still read books. (p. 65) He looks at Clay’s Kindle, noticing things that are good about, such as being able to make the font bigger. He also notices the font is a very old one, Gerritszoon. Is/was the Kindle a positive example of a new way to interface with the old?
10. Why is the book set in San Francisco? What role did that city play in the story? Why did New York make an appearance?
11. There was a lot of concern during the time of Guttenberg and Manutius, as people worried printing houses would take work away from monks, and would replace skilled labor with unskilled labor, and take away the prestige of books as they became more accessible to common people. Was that concerned founded? What is the similarity between that and what is happening today as far as books and technology?
12. What role did The Dragonslayer Chronicles play in this book? Would you publish the third book or leave it hidden forever?
13. Describe Clay’s friend Neel and their relationship?
14. Which character did you most relate to? Why? Which character did you least relate to?
15. What do you think about the answer to “our greatest question”/how to live forever?
16. Why does the Festina Lente company embrace technology but the Unbroken Spine does not?
17. Society’s reaction to the advent of the printing press was somewhat similar to society’s reaction to the Kindle. Why? Were the opponents of printing houses correct to feel as they did? What about those who felt the Kindle and ebooks would destroy reading and book culture?
“ChurchHatesTucker points us to a wonderful historical analysis of a 15th century luddite, abbot Johannes Trithemius, who was no fan of the printing press, because of what it was going to do to those poor monks. It wasn’t just that it would put them out of work, but that it would impact their souls. He worried that the printing press would make monks lazy.
It was okay that the act of copying was hard. It built character, in Trithemius’s opinion, the same way as chopping wood (though to this “interior exercise,” i.e. exercise of the spirit, he assigned far more importance). For monks, labor was part and parcel of devotion, and if you weren’t good at writing, you could do binding, or painting, or for heaven’s sake practice. And it goes even further: the labor of manuscript writing was something for monks to do — for there was no greater danger for the devout soul than idleness.
For among all the manual exercises, none is so seemly to monks as devotion to the writing of sacred texts.
He also pulls out the typical “but this new fangled thing just isn’t as nice as the old stuff”: He does spend some time talking about practical reasons that printed books weren’t anything to get bothered about: their paper wasn’t as permanent as the parchment the monks used (he even advocates the hand-copying of “useful” printed works for their preservation); there weren’t very many books in print, and they were hard to find; they were constrained by the limitations of type, and were therefore ugly.” (Predictions by Mike Masnick, www.techdirt.com February 25. 2011)
18. There were many opposing reviews of this book. How many of you found the book to be charming? Overly-convenient? Clever? Implausible? Fun? Did you think ever-present synchronistic elements add to or detracted from the plot?
19. Would you recommend Mr. Penumbra to a friend? What other books would you recommend to a fan of this book?
Want help with your book discussion group? Check out tips, advice, and all the ways the Library can help support your group!
New York Times review, “Bookworms and Apples”
Slate review “Scanners”
Robin Sloan’s official author website
LitLovers discussion guide
NPR interview with Robin Sloan “‘Mr. Penumbra’ Bridges the Digital Divide”
The Invisible Library
by Genevieve Cogman
by Doug Durst and J.J. Abrams
Where’d You Go, Bernadette
by Marie Semple