is the future for books? And what is the future for
humanity? Can we imagine our future, or is it so
different from where we are now that it exceeds our
Sloan, whose job titles have included both novelist and
futurist, is in a unique position to ask such questions.
explores them in his best-selling 2012
novel, "Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour
the story of Clay Jannon, the newest employee of this
San Francisco bookstore.
store is peculiar. Besides a few dusty best-sellers
stacked haphazardly at the front, the narrow building is
stocked with mysterious leather-bound volumes Mr.
Penumbra forbids Jannon to read. Hardly anyone visits
the bookstore except for strange customers who drop in
at odd hours to borrow the large books.
Jannon’s curiosity wins over and he peeks at the
forbidden pages, he discovers only incomprehensible
code. Determined to figure out what’s going on, Jannon
and his friends set out on a quest that leads them into
the dark bowels of New York City, then a data
visualization center at Google headquarters. If they can
solve the mystery behind Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore,
they may very well unlock the secret to eternal life.
imaginative book has two origins, Sloan says in a call
from Berkeley, California, near his home in San
Francisco. The first, his interest in the people who
work in San Francisco’s technology industry.
couldn’t work and live in San Francisco and not be
exposed to Googlers and people at Facebook," says
Sloan, who thought their mix of creativity and weirdness
worth writing about.
book’s second catalyst was a tweet by one of Sloan’s
friends: "Just misread a sign for a 24-hour book
drop for 24-hour bookshop. My disappointment is beyond
remembers thinking he’d be disappointed, too. Then he
began to wonder: What would be in that bookstore? And
who would work there? And what would the night shift be
idea took root in his head, and several weeks later it
grew into a short story. Sloan posted it on his website
for free. Then he put it on sale at Kindle. Soon
after, Sloan captured a literary agent who urged him to
turn the short story into a novel.
was a challenge," says Sloan, who was used to
writing punchy blog posts and tweets that captured
people’s limited attention. Now, he wanted to draw
people into an imaginary world of lovely scenes and
drawn-out paragraphs. It took him several drafts to
unlearn his Internet writing habits.
the first draft of the novel you would have wondered,
‘What’s the rush, buddy?’" says Sloan.
book unites mystery, adventure and a little romance, but
it also looks at how technology is transforming the
is a familiar topic for Sloan. Before becoming a
novelist, he worked at the media institute Poynter, the
user-generated content channel Current TV and Twitter.
His job title at Current TV was futurist.
people are into the past, but I’ve always been
interested in the future and telling stories about
it," says Sloan.
predicts that both print books and e-books will coexist
comfortably for at least the next 50 years.
often believe that a new kind of media will destroy what
came before it. Not so, says Sloan. Take vinyl records,
radio and good old cable TV.
tends to pile up instead of replacing itself," says
Sloan. "I think that means that our media landscape
gets more textured."
you were to climb into a San Francisco streetcar in the
year 2064, you’d see some people reading paperbacks
while others read digital devices, he says.
himself is at the forefront of the developing media
landscape. He published a tap essay called Fish,
which readers can download onto their device, then tap
the screen to read through pithy sentences combined with
the occasional image of (yes) a dead fish.
the essay, Sloan explores the difference between liking
and loving something on the Internet. He suggests that
to love something means to return to it, just like we
reread books and rewatch movies that captivate us. Sloan
points out that while we frequently like and favorite
and share things on the Internet, we rarely return to
them. If to love is to return, we do a poor job of
loving anything on the Internet.
I want a website that just shows me the same thing over
and over again," writes Sloan in the essay.
"This is a path from like to love and I’m trying
to follow it myself because liking and faveing are not
Sloan’s reading mediums are eclectic, "I prefer
print books," he says. "They kind of hang out
and have this kind of wonderful quiet persistence that
says, ‘Hey! Don’t forget about me!’"
what about Penumbra? Is it a book to return to
again and again?
But Sloan says, "You better read it now before it
becomes dated. It says a lot about the world we live in
now, and that will be less true in five years when
another book comes out to top it. This one does a good
job approaching this funny time we find ourselves