Codes and Secret Societies—No, It’s Not Dan Brown’s Latest Novel

It’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan, a light-hearted novel that features an unusual bookstore where customers come in at all hours to borrow obscure books.

 Clay Jannon is an under-30-year-old man with an art degree who worked for a start-up San Francisco bagel company designing their logos and website until the company went bankrupt. Clay has been checking the Internet for job openings with no luck, but finds one as he is walking around and spots a help wanted sign at Penumbra’s bookstore. Penumbra’s store is very narrow and very tall with only a small part of the store devoted to books for sale and the rest devoted to shelving for many unusual, mysterious-looking books. Mr. Penumbra asks Clay about his favorite book (The Dragon-Song Chronicles by Clark Moffat) and whether Clay can climb a ladder, and Clay gets the job on the night shift. The bookstore is not busy, but people come in to return one obscure book and pick up another obscure book from the tall back shelves. Clay has to keep track of the customers in a logbook. About half-way through the novel, it is revealed that Penumbra’s customers are part of a society known as the Unbroken Spine. They are trying to figure out the coded message in the codex vitae (life history) of Aldus Manutius, the first modern publisher, who was friends with Griffo Gerritszoon, inventor of a type font that is still the default font today. (This part appears to be fictitious but seems to resemble the Times New Roman font.) Clay rounds up his friends to help solve the puzzle: Kat, who works at Google; Mat, who works at Industrial Light and Magic; Neel, Clay’s childhood friend who is a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur. This is a humorous story about books, technology, friendship, and solving an old puzzle.  A fun book for those who like solving mysteries, secrets, and codes.


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