How to read

On a phone:
Tap the edges of the page

On a com­puter:
Click the edges of the page, or use the arrow keys, the space bar, the trackpad, or the scroll wheel

On paper:
Print it out

Basically, every­thing works

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the story

If you think you might want to read the novel, it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter to start with that, and then return here to see where it all began. But, if you’re not quite sold, then by all means, read on … 

It’s 2:02 a.m. on a cold summer night.

I’m sit­ting in a bookstore next to a strip club. Not that kind of book­store. The inven­tory here is incred­i­bly old and impos­si­bly rare. And it has a secret — a secret that I might have just discovered.

I am alone in the store. And then, tap-tap, sud­denly I’m not.

And now I’m pretty sure I’m about to snap my lap­top shut, run scream­ing out the front door, and never return.

I should start at the beginning.

I lost my job in the slumped-over spring of 2009. I applied for dozens of replace­ment gigs but was rebuffed, again and again. And I took only the cold­est com­fort when the com­pa­nies doing the rebuff­ing were, themselves, forced out of busi­ness months later. I prob­a­bly couldn’t have turned them around sin­gle-handedly. Probably.

The job I lost was at the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters of the New Ams­ter­dam Bagel Bakery. I designed bagel mar­ket­ing materials: menus, coupons, posters for store windows, and, once, an entire booth “experience” for the bagel indus­try trade show. I also ran the website.

Now, months into my unemployment, I’d started watch­ing for “help wanted” signs in windows, which is not some­thing you really do, right? I was taught to be sus­pi­cious of those. Legit­i­mate employ­ers use Craigslist.

And sure enough, the 24-hour book­store did not have the look of a legitimate employer:

Now, I was pretty sure that “24-hour book­store” was a euphemism for some­thing. It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town. I spotted it on my way to a bar with a “recession spe­cial” happy hour. The place next door had a sign with neon legs that crossed and uncrossed.

But inside — yes, of course I went inside — it wasn’t sketchy at all. Just the opposite: It was stuffy and claustrophobic. Imag­ine the vol­ume of a nor­mal store turned on its side. It was absurdly nar­row and dizzy­ingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up — five sto­ries of books. The whole place was dim and dusty; you couldn’t even really see the ceiling.

There were lad­ders that clung to the shelves and rolled side-to-side. Those usu­ally seem charming, but here, stretch­ing up into the gloom, they just seemed ominous. No way would I even touch one of those lad­ders.

Unless, of course, I filled out the appli­ca­tion for the open clerk position, and pressed it into the wrin­kled hands of Mr. Penum­bra, the shop’s owner, and pleaded my case, cit­ing my senior the­sis on Swiss typog­ra­phy (1491-1519), and started to argue for the graphic novel as seri­ous lit­er­ary form (as well as boon to a bookseller’s busi­ness, because you know, kids these days, they’re grow­ing up with manga, and I could help you out with that, I could stock a whole new section) — 

In which case, if I did all that, old Mr. Penum­bra might have pinched his eyes, looked me up and down, and said, “Well, that’s all fine … but can you climb a lad­der?”

If all that hap­pened, I might then, hypothetically, find myself on one of those lad­ders, on the third floor, minus the floor, of Penum­bra’s 24-Hour book­store.

The book he’s sent me up to retrieve, “de Guilford’s Inquiry,” is about 130% of one arm-length to my left. Obviously, I need to return to the ground and scoot the lad­der over. But down below, Mr. Penum­bra is shouting: “Lean, my boy! Lean!”

And boy, do I ever want this job.

So, that was a month ago.

Now I’m the night clerk at Penum­bra’s, and I shimmy up and down that lad­der like a mon­key.

You should see me lean.

If I’m retriev­ing two books, I’ll place the lad­der halfway between them, dash up, and then, forty feet off the ground, I’ll clamp a hand on one of the rails, and lean way out so

my arm
my body
and the ladder

form a skinny right triangle.

If I do this on both sides of the lad­der, I can stretch across a span of a hun­dred books. It’s fun.

Unfortunately, I am not required to do it very often. Let me tell you: Penum­bra’s 24-Hour book­store does not oper­ate around the clock due to an over­whelm­ing vol­ume of book-buyers.

In fact, whole nights go by with­out a sin­gle customer. Just me, my lap­top, and the dusty heights.

But oh. That sin­gle customer. There is, I have learned, a com­mu­nity of very strange men clus­tered in this part of San Fran­cisco. They visit the store late at night. They come wide awake, and com­pletely sober. And they are always nearly vibrating with need. For example:

The bell on the door will tin­kle and before it’s done, Mr. Tyn­dall will be shouting, breathless, “Kingslake’s! I need Kingslake’s!” He’ll take his hands off his head (has he really been run­ning down the street with his hands on his head?) and clamp them down on the front desk.

“Kingslake’s! Quickly!”

Mr. Penum­bra has a database, believe it or not. The books aren’t shelved accord­ing to title or subject (do they even have sub­jects?) so the data­base is crucial. It runs on an old Mac Plus, but I copied it onto my lap­top and, over the course of a few customer-free nights, mapped it onto a 3D model of the store. (If this sounds impres­sive to you, you’re over 30.)

So now I will just type in K-I-N-G-S-L-A-K-E and the model will rotate and zoom in on aisle 3, shelf 13, which is only about thirty feet up.

“You have it? Oh thank goodness, thank you, yes, thank goodness,” Tyn­dall will say, almost whimpering. “How much?”

And this is the crazy part. I haven’t sold a book in this store for less than two hun­dred dollars. Many are much more expen­sive than that. Penum­bra’s data­base will tell me that “Investigations” by Reynold Kingslake is $1,800.

Not a blink.

After I do my mon­key busi­ness on the lad­der, Tyn­dall will write a prim check and slide it across the desk. “Thank you,” he will breathe, and then the bell will tin­kle again as he hur­ries back out onto the street. It will be three in the morn­ing.

They always pay. Not one has ever balked. Where do these weird old men get all this money?

This is one of the things I ask myself when I sit here alone, after Mr. Tyn­dall or Mr. Raleigh or Mr. Fedorov has left. I think I know them all at this point. I think of them as a strange fel­low­ship, but I have no evi­dence that they know each other. Each comes in alone, and never says a word about any­thing other than the object of his current, frantic fascination.

I have no idea what’s in those books they pay all that money for. In fact, it’s part of my job not to know. After the lad­der test, back on the day I was hired, Mr. Penum­bra said:

“This job has three requirements, each very strict.”

  1. “You must always be here from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. exactly. You must not be late. You cannot leave early.”
  2. “You may not read, examine, inspect, or otherwise touch any of the books in this store — unless you are retrieving it for a customer.”
  3. I know what you’re thinking: Dozens of nights alone, and you’ve never cracked a cover?

    No, I haven’t. For all I know, Penumbra has a camera somewhere. If I sneak a peek and he finds out, I’m fired. My friends are dropping like flies out there; whole industries, whole parts of the country, are shutting down. I need this job.

    And besides, the third rule makes up for the second:

  4. “You must keep precise records of all purchases. Time. Amount. The customer’s appearance. His state of mind. How he asks for the book. How he receives it. Does he appear to be injured. Is he wearing a sprig of rosemary on his hat. And so on.”

I guess under gen­eral circumstances, this would feel like a creepy job requirement. Under the actual circumstances — selling rare books to mad schol­ars in the mid­dle of the night — it feels per­fectly appropriate. So, rather than spend my time star­ing at the for­bid­den shelves, I spend it writ­ing about the cus­tomers.

The basics — which book was pur­chased, its price, the time — go into the data­base. The rest goes into a giant, leather-bound log­book. It’s all mine; Mr. Penum­bra pulled it out from under the front desk on my first night, heaved it open, and, on the first page, he wrote my name.

I have to say, I feel pretty pro­pri­etary about this book. I try to take clear, accu­rate notes, with only an occa­sional lit­er­ary flourish. On quiet nights, I describe the weather.

Sometimes I draw pic­tures, like this one, of Mr. Tyn­dall tonight:

So I guess you could say rule num­ber two isn’t quite absolute. There’s one book I’m allowed to touch in Penum­bra’s 24-Hour book­store. It’s the one I’m writ­ing.

Mr. Penum­bra works the day shift. He starts at 6 a.m. and fin­ishes at 10 p.m., if you can believe it. That’s a long day for an old man. I see him every night and every morn­ing. If we’ve had a customer, he usu­ally com­pli­ments me on my obser­va­tions, but then probes even deeper.

“Very good ren­der­ing of Mr. Raleigh,” he’ll say. “But tell me, do you remember, were the but­tons on his coat made of mother-of-pearl? Or were they horn? Or some kind of metal? Copper?”

I have to admit: It does seem strange that Mr. Penumbra wants all this information. But when peo­ple are over a cer­tain age, you sort of stop ask­ing them why they do things. It feels dangerous. What if you say, so Mr. Penum­bra, why do you want to know about Mr. Raleigh’s coat but­tons?, and he pauses, and scratches his chin, and there’s an uncom­forta­ble silence — and we both real­ize he can’t remember?

Or what if he flies into a rage and fires me on the spot?

It’s true that I can’t really imag­ine him enraged. However, it’s also true that my room­mate Dan just got laid off last week and he’s prob­a­bly going to move back to Sacramento. In this eco­nomic environment, I prefer not to test old Mr. Penum­bra’s boundaries.

Mr. Raleigh’s coat but­tons were jade.

During the day, after my shift at the store but before my vam­piric after­noon sleep, I spend a lot of time at the cafe down the street from my house. It’s called “Sup­ply and Demand.”

The gim­mick is that dur­ing the day it’s “Sup­ply,” a coffee shop, and at night it turns into “Demand,” a bar. The bar is a total meat market, but the cof­fee shop is effi­cient and well-regulated.

So that’s where I was, sit­ting at a tiny ta­ble, slurp­ing one of those giant mugs the size of your face, work­ing on my 3D model of the store.

I’d souped it up so it could show you not just where the books were located, but which were sold, and to whom. They lit up like lit­tle lamps in the blocky 3D shelves. They’re color-coded, so the books pur­chased by Mr. Tyn­dall lit up blue, Mr. Raleigh’s were green, Fedorov was yellow, Imbert orange, and so on.

But now the shelves were disappearing when I rotated them too far. So I was sitting there, trying to figure out why, when a voice piped up from over my shoulder:</p.>

“Oh, are you into data visu­al­iza­tion?”

I turned. Why yes, girl with chest­nut hair cropped to your chin and a red t-shirt with the word BAM! printed in mus­tard yellow, I am into data visu­al­iza­tion.

“Me too,” she said. “Actually, I do it for a living. I work at Google.”

Google! This girl must be a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.

Well, take a look at this, I said.

She sat down and I showed her the bug in my book­store. Soon her hands were on the keys, flut­ter­ing through my code, which was a lit­tle embarrassing, because my code is full of com­ments like “hell yeah!” and “now, com­puter, it is time for you to do my bidding.”

But Kat (her name was Kat) thought it was cute, and she was, in fact, a genius. She tracked down the bug and fixed it in the time it took me to drain my mug. And then, tap-tap, she made the shelves ren­der more realistically, with a cool sort of wood-grain texture.

Then she said, “Have you thought about doing a time-series visu­al­iza­tion?”

This sounded like a nerd’s way of ask­ing another nerd out on a date, so I said I hadn’t, but that I was super interested. We made plans to meet at Sup­ply and Demand the next day.

That night, at the book­store, I started work­ing on the new visu­al­iza­tion, think­ing I could impress Kat with a prototype. I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype.

The idea was to ani­mate through the pur­chases over time instead of just see­ing them all at once. I got a sim­ple ver­sion work­ing by mid­night, and imme­di­ately I noticed some­thing.

The lights were fol­low­ing each other.

Mr. Tyndall would buy a book from the top of aisle 3. Three days later, Mr. Raleigh would do the same. Not the same book (Penum­bra’s has only one copy of any­thing), but one very close. Another week, and Mr. Fedorov would follow — even though Mr. Tyn­dall had already come in again and got­ten some­thing from the bot­tom of aisle 1. He was a step ahead.

I’d never noticed the pat­tern because the pur­chases were so spread out. Imag­ine hear­ing a piece of music with six days between each note. But here, sped up, it was obvious. And it was as if they really were all play­ing the same piece, or danc­ing the same dance, or solv­ing the same puzzle.

Maybe some were just bet­ter at it than others?

The bell tin­kled. It was Mr. Imbert — solid, compact, with his bristly black beard and slop­ing news­boy cap. In a hurry, I scrubbed through the visu­al­iza­tion to find his place in the pat­tern. An orange light bounced across my lap­top’s screen, and before he said a word, I knew he was going to ask for a book right in the mid­dle of aisle 2. Maybe a book like Prokhorov’s — 

“Prokhorov’s Interpretations!” Imbert wheezed. “It is essential!”

Halfway up, I felt dizzy. What was going on? No dare­devil maneu­vers this time; it was all I could do to stay on the lad­der as I pulled the slim, black-bound vol­ume off the shelf.

It was a bar­gain at $300. The bell tin­kled, and I was alone again, and for the first time, Penum­bra’s 24-Hour book­store felt not just strange, but sinister.

Back at Sup­ply and Demand. The air is crack­ling with wi-fi; Kat and I are hav­ing the only spo­ken con­ver­sa­tion in the entire place.

She’s wear­ing the same red-and-yellow BAM! t-shirt as yesterday, which means a) she slept in it, b) she owns sev­eral iden­ti­cal t-shirts, or c) she’s a car­toon character — all of which are appealing alter­na­tives.

I don’t want to come out and con­fess that I work at the offi­cial book­store of the da Vinci Code, but I do want her mega-brain applied to this problem. So I just play the visu­al­iza­tion.

“You made this last night?” she says. “Impressive.”

We watch the lights curl around each other. We watch again. And again.

Kat bites her lip and thinks hard, which is very attractive. “You know,” she says, “some­thing about this looks … recursive.”

I have noth­ing to con­tribute at this point.

She says: “But there aren't that many data points. We might just be mak­ing up the pat­tern. Is there some other series we can add to the visu­al­iza­tion?”

Well, I say, I’ve got this big leather log­book. But it’s not really data … just descriptions. And it would take for­ever to type it all into the com­puter, anyway.

Kat’s eyes light up. “A nat­ural lan­guage corpus! And an excuse to use the book-scanner! Want to bring it down to Google tomorrow?”

Her lips make a pretty shape when she says “corpus.”

Now, Mr. Penum­bra has never specif­i­cally for­bid­den me from tak­ing the log­book home.

But he hasn’t specif­i­cally for­bid­den me from invit­ing all my friends over for an after-hours book­store party, and I’m pretty sure that’s not allowed, either.

Anyway, he only checks the log­book if I tell him some­thing inter­est­ing hap­pened dur­ing the night.

Nothing inter­est­ing hap­pens dur­ing the night.

There’s a tiny flash­light attached to my keychain, and I shine it around the store, look­ing for the tell-tale glint of a cam­era lens. (They do this in movie theaters, to find pirates! And in the army. To find snipers.)

Not a sin­gle thing glints in Penum­bra’s 24-Hour Book­store.

I can’t stop squirming. If fid­gets were Wikipedia edits, I would have com­pletely revamped the entry on “guilt” by now, and trans­lated it into six new lan­guages.

Finally, it’s quar­ter to six. The thinnest ten­drils of dawn are creep­ing in from the east. Friends in New York are log­ging onto the inter­net and post­ing funny links.

I close my laptop, sweaty palms flat on the lid. Here’s the plan: Instead of return­ing the logbook to its slot in the front desk, I’m going to put it in my mes­sen­ger bag, in the laptop compartment. My lap­top will stay at the book­store today, tucked into the log­book’s slot.

I have a hun­dred expla­na­tions (with branch­ing sub-plots) if Mr. Penum­bra nabs me.

The bell tin­kles. “Good morn­ing,” he says. “How was — ”

No cus­tomers quiet night gotta go Mr. Penum­bra see you later. I say it in one breath, already moving. I try to look ill, which isn’t hard, because I feel terrible.

He pauses, then smiles a lop­sided old-man smile. “See you tonight.”

I’m out the door, and twenty minutes later, I’m on the train to Moun­tain View, clutch­ing my bag, and my book, to my chest.

The rum­ble and sway puts me to sleep.

When I wake up, Google is noth­ing like I imag­ined.

The main cam­pus is a crystal castle, spik­ing up out of the gray lawns of Sil­i­con Val­ley and glint­ing blue-green in the morn­ing sun. This isn’t a metaphor. It’s really crys­tal, and it looks organic, not architectural. Google grew it.

Kat is explain­ing all of this to me right now.

Offices started as tents and pavilions. Roads and side­walks were marked off with chalk and string. The crystal grew over and around all of that, like a coral reef. But it’s not for looks, and it’s not structural, either. It’s functional. The crys­tal is some­how com­puter memory, process­ing power, and fiber-optics all in one. It radi­ates wi-fi. It runs on sunlight.

Kat points a long, brown arm towards the tallest crys­tal spike, gleam­ing at the very cen­ter of the cam­pus. “That’s one of our data­base shards,” she says. “Your email is in there. Along with every video on YouTube. A bunch of DNA sequences. And almost every book ever writ­ten.”

Mr. Penum­bra’s shelves don’t seem so tall anymore.

Wide walk-ways curve into the crys­tal cam­pus. Kat leads me to a low, rec­tan­gu­lar tent. There’s a hand-writ­ten sign pinned to the canvas: “BOOK-SCANNER.”

The inside of the tent feels like an army field hospital. The hard­ware is all very hard. Lots of wires and clamps. Harsh flood-lights look down on an oper­at­ing ta­ble sur­rounded by long, many-jointed metal arms. The air stings like bleach.

And there, patiently wait­ing, are the books. Stacks and stacks of them, piled high on metal carts. Big books and lit­tle books. New best-sellers and old tomes that would fit in at Penum­bra’s.

The Googler pre­sid­ing over all of this looks like a col­lege freshman. His name is Jad.

“Kat warned me this might be a challenge,” he says. “But we’ll see. The scanner’s pretty good.”

He sets my log­book up on a metal frame and tells us to step back. His fin­gers go tap-tap behind a bank of monitors, and the book-scanner leaps into action.

The flood-lights start strobing, turn­ing every­thing in the tent into a stop-motion film. Frame by frame, the scanner’s spi­dery arms reach down, grasp page corners, peel them back. I’ve never seen any­thing at once so fast and so delicate. The arms — I can’t tell if there are four or eight or sixteen — stroke the pages, caress them, smooth them down. This thing loves books.

At each flash of the lights, two giant cam­eras snap images in tandem. I sidle up next to Jad, where I can see the pages of my log­book stack­ing up on his monitors. The two cam­eras are like two eyes, so the images are in 3D, and I watch his com­puter lift the words right up off the pages. It looks like an exorcism.

Jad’s fin­gers go tap-tap again. “Wow, we need to allo­cate more process­ing power,” he says.

Because the data is so complex?

“No,” he says. “It’s your handwrit­ing. It’s really bad.”

Okay. I walk back over to Kat, who’s leaned over as close to the book-scanner as you can get with­out risk­ing a metal arm in the eye.

“This is awesome,” she breathes.

It really is. I feel a pang of pity for my log­book. All of its secrets, coaxed out in five minutes flat by this super-smart hur­ri­cane of metal and light. Books used to be pretty high-tech, back in the day. Not anymore.

I walked away empty-handed.

Which is to say, I walked away with the knowl­edge that the high-resolution images of my log­book, along with the dig­i­tized text and Jad’s analy­sis of that text, were wait­ing for me in Google’s crys­tal data­base, acces­si­ble anywhere, anytime.

Like right now.

It’s 11 p.m., I’m rested after an after­noon of strange, spi­dery dreams, and I’m ready to visualize.

I retrieve Jad’s analy­sis via an unpro­tected wi-fi net­work from next door named “bootynet.”

Now, com­puter, it is time for you to do my bidding.

By 2 a.m., I’ve got the new data piped into my visu­al­iza­tion, and by 2:02 a.m., I am ready to run scream­ing out the front door of the store.

Here’s what I see:

  1. The store, looking very nice in 3D, with a convincing wood-grain effect.
  2. Just as before, a swarm of colored lights bounce through the shelves; each one is a customer.
  3. But now a set of symbols have joined them: a tiny fedora for customers with hats, a cartoon rose for customers who smell (good and bad), a little Eiffel Tower for customers who mutter to themselves in French. There are a million ways to describe these guys; Jad’s algorithms have read them all out of my logbook and organized them into categories. So now I see those categories move through the shelves, too.

The lights and the sym­bols all leave trails. The trails are like brush-strokes. And if I rotate the 3D model so that, on my screen, I’m view­ing the store from the per­spec­tive of the front desk — from where I’m sit­ting right now — the brush-strokes fit together. They form a pic­ture.

It’s a face.

It’s a face I know.

It’s a pic­ture of Mr. Penum­bra.

The bell tin­kles and he walks into the store. A coil of fog follows him.

Why I haven’t fled, I don’t know. Dark curiosity, maybe, or a lin­ger­ing sense of clerkly responsibility.

Tonight, a computer program showed me a picture of Mr. Penum­bra. A com­puter pro­gram that I did not design to show me pic­tures of peo­ple. And def­i­nitely not pic­tures of wrin­kled, old — 

Actually. Wait. I real­ize now, as I see him in the gray morn­ing light, that I have made the com­mon mis­take of assum­ing that all old peo­ple look alike. The pic­ture drawn out by the data on my screen isn’t Mr. Penumbra. Same nose, but Mr. Penum­bra’s mouth is wider. His cheeks are rounder.

“Good morn­ing,” he says. “How was — ”

I have to tell him. It’s a ter­ri­fy­ing thought, but the alter­na­tive is to sit qui­etly at my desk as a vor­tex of weirdness spi­rals around me. (That describes a lot of jobs, I real­ize, but this is poten­tially a spe­cial kind of magick-with-a-K weird­ness.) Well, that or quit.

So I swivel my lap­top and tell Mr. Penum­bra I have some­thing he should see, if he’s interested, but if not, you know, no big deal, we could always do it tomorrow, and — 

He’s interested.

He holds his glasses at an angle and peers down at my screen. At first, his face is slack, and I’m afraid he doesn’t under­stand what I’m show­ing him, or that the tiny lights have given him a tiny stroke.

But then he says, qui­etly: “Hello, Elzevir.”

I think he’s about to fly into a rage. He looks like I feel when I’m about to fly into a rage: skin pulled tight across the cheeks, mouth not work­ing like it’s sup­posed to. I’m not afraid of him — leaning in close like this, I’m reminded how old he is — but maybe I should be.

The bell tin­kles. We both turn. It’s Kat.

“Oh … hey,” she says. She can tell some­thing’s up; there’s ten­sion in the air, to go with all the dust.

Mr. Penum­bra turns back to me with nar­row eyes.

“Go,” he says. “See you tonight. 10 p.m. sharp.”

I explain every­thing to Kat over waffles. I’m feel­ing par­tic­u­larly warm towards her at the moment, as her timely inter­ven­tion might have saved my life. Or at least my job.

I show her the new visu­al­iza­tion, and the creepy old face. The face of Elzevir.

“Well,” she says, “this is prob­a­bly a world-record. Most labor-intensive steganog­ra­phy ever.”


“Putting a hidden message where nobody would think to look for a hid­den mes­sage. This qualifies, big-time. Sure, it’s amaz­ing that these guys are act­ing out this pic­ture, week after week. But who would even think to record their habits in the first place?”

Well, technically, that would be Mr. Penum­bra. See: rule num­ber three. My job.

She pokes her fork at me. “There’s no ques­tion, then. You were sup­posed to find this.”

Funny. The look on Mr. Penum­bra’s face didn’t exactly say “congratulations.”

The night that fol­lowed was my last at the book­store.

When I arrived, Mr. Penum­bra emerged from the shad­ows of the shelves and dropped him­self down at the front desk like a sack of potatoes. The oldest, thinnest sack of potatoes you have ever seen. The sack of potatoes you would never buy at the store, even if you were going to a potato party and just needed a lot of pota­toes, no matter what.

“This is very strange,” he sighed, “but not entirely surprising.”

I thought, but didn’t say: Oh, I’m pretty sur­prised. By the ancient human face on my com­puter screen.

“You real­ize,” he said, look­ing up at me with those nar­row eyes again, “it doesn’t work this way. There are no shortcuts.”

I said noth­ing.

“An inves­ti­ga­tion of the fel­low­ship must be done on paper. It must pro­duce a book.”

Please allow the fol­low­ing series of ques­tion marks to rep­re­sent the blank­ness of my stare: ?????

Mr. Penum­bra cocked his head. He said, “Haven’t you read any of the vol­umes here?”

Of course not! Mr. Penum­bra, that’s rule num­ber two! Don’t read the books. My cousin just moved to Florida because they’re clos­ing the state of Michigan! I follow the rules.

He laughed a lit­tle, and shook his head. “I guess it’s one thing for a com­puter to help you find the answer,” he said. “But we’ve now arrived at a point where you don’t even need to ask the ques­tion anymore.”

Well, what, uh, what’s the ques­tion?

“The book­store is the first ques­tion,” he said, and raised his arms, as if to cir­cle the strange space around us. “Why does it exist? Why does Mr. Tyn­dall buy a book at mid­night on the 9th of June, and why is he wear­ing green rub­ber boots when he does it? You’re obvi­ously curious.”

I nodded.

“But the final ques­tion,” he said, “is how do you live for­ever?”

“Well,” Mr. Penum­bra said at last, “I need to con­sider what comes next.” He stood. “This will be your last shift. Please close the store in the morn­ing. I will send your final pay­check.”

The bell tin­kled. He dis­ap­peared into the fog.

No. No! He didn’t fly into a rage, but I still got fired.

There were no cus­tomers that night. When it was time to go home, I flipped through the bank of light switches — I didn’t even know there were light switches — and watched the gloomy shelves disappear, one by one.

It felt like dous­ing a lighthouse.

My final pay­check came in the mail, as promised. It was for $300,000.


There was also an invitation. Writ­ten in Mr. Penum­bra’s hand, it said: 303 Clement Street. Friday. 10pm.

It was a Burmese restau­rant called Mega Man­dalay Palace with a sign on the door that said CLOSED FOR SPE­CIAL EVENT. Inside, every­thing was warm and golden.

They were all there. Mr. Penum­bra at the head of the ta­ble, flanked by Tyn­dall, Raleigh, and old Fedorov. There were many more I didn’t know, men who seemed even older still. Some in crazy costumes: tunics, tuxedos, sal­war kameez. Even a few women; one had her gray hair styled in a sort of Vul­can bowl-cut. They were all jab­ber­ing at each other, wav­ing their arms and laughing. They all seemed happy.

Penumbra saw me as I walked in. He rose: “My broth­ers and sisters! Here’s the one who didn’t bother to write a book!” They all clapped, and there was some cheering, and Imbert whistled.

Penumbra motioned for me to sit beside him. I expected every­one to stay focused on me, as I had clearly just solved some Indi­ana Jones-caliber mys­tery of the ages. But they were all still jab­ber­ing and laughing. It felt like a reunion.

“You are in the presence,” Penum­bra said, “of a fel­low­ship more than 500 years old. We have been around for as long as books have.”

Tyndall leaned in from Penum­bra’s other side: “A broth­er­hood bound by binding!”

“It was con­ceived by Mr. Elzevir,” Penum­bra continued, and motioned to the other end of the ta­ble, where the ancient face from my com­puter screen was grin­ning and hoist­ing a tall glass of beer. Wow.

“He imag­ined a soci­ety devoted to the great promise of the book: That by writ­ing, you can earn a kind of immortality, as your words pass into other minds, far removed from your own by dis­tance and time.”

“And,” Fedorov said, his mouth full of rice, “when accom­pa­nied by cer­tain numero­log­i­cal rites” — pause to swallow — “bibliographic longevity can be con­verted to bio­log­i­cal longevity, as well.”

“Yes,” Penum­bra said, “I suppose that’s the impor­tant part.”

“No kidding,” I said qui­etly.

“Some would say our soci­ety has, ah, devolved,” Penum­bra said, “for we now read only the books writ­ten by our membership. Books which are filled only with observations of other members. And ref­er­ences to other books filled only with obser­va­tions. And so on.”

Tyndall leaned in: “No Proust here!”

“But the for­mula persists,” Penum­bra said, “and so do we.” He was silent a moment. “Until now.”

I told the story to Kat later that night. The tea-leaf salad hadn’t quite soaked up all the beer, and she was a lit­tle con­fused and weirded-out when I rang her door­bell at three in the morn­ing, but now I was try­ing to be as clear as possible:

Mr. Penum­bra knew that books wouldn’t last for­ever. He knew some­thing else would come along. But for the longest time, noth­ing did.

If I’d gone to work at the store ten years ago, or a hun­dred (it wasn’t in San Fran­cisco then; it was in London) maybe I would have started notic­ing the pat­terns with­out the help of a com­puter. Maybe I would have started sneak­ing peeks at the books, copy­ing out passages, find­ing connections. Maybe I would have drawn Elzevir’s face in pen, on paper. (It would have taken years.)

If I’d done all that, maybe I would have joined the fel­low­ship. Maybe I would have become one of them.

Instead, I used a lap­top. I used Google’s book-scanner. I made some­thing fun­da­men­tally incom­pat­i­ble with 500 years of history: a com­puter pro­gram.

I broke the spell.

“I don’t get it,” Kat said. We were sit­ting at her kitchen ta­ble, cradling mugs of tea. “Why couldn’t the visu­al­iza­tion just be your ticket to immortality?”

I was sur­prised that she asked, because even I knew the answer. Com­puter pro­grams don’t have the same longevity. It was doubt­ful some­body could get my visu­al­iza­tion to run in six months, let alone six years, or six hun­dred. There was some­thing very spe­cial about the book and the way it lasted. The way it got passed from hand to hand, from mind to mind. Until now.

There was a long silence.

“So,” she said softly, look­ing down into her mug, “what hap­pens to Mr. Penum­bra? And the rest of them?”

He said he’s clos­ing the store. He said the fel­low­ship would fade away — not all at once, but gradually.

And then he said one more thing, as we were all leav­ing the restau­rant.

“Here’s the trick, my boy,” Mr. Penum­bra said, wrap­ping his long, thin arm around my shoulder. The halo of gray hair around his head was a little messed up. He was a lit­tle drunk.

“Forget the store. For­get the numero­log­i­cal rites. Just make some­thing that will last. And then, in a hun­dred years, or a thousand, some­one will find it, at three in the morn­ing, exactly when they need it most. And you’ll live again.”

I must have looked dubious, because he said:

“Just because it’s chang­ing doesn’t mean it’s over. Your Google genius and her friends will build new kinds of books. All of us in the fel­low­ship, we’ll live again. We’ll meet here, at this restau­rant. There will be samosas, and tea-leaf salad, and more beer — ”

(Tyn­dall heard this from fur­ther up the sidewalk, and shouted to the sky: “More beer!”)

“ — and we’ll all live again.” He paused. “But your place at the ta­ble isn’t assured. Not yet.”

He let me go, and smiled. “You’d bet­ter be there.”

And then they all dis­ap­peared into the fog.

So what now? There’s a FOR LEASE sign stuck to the front of the 24-hour book­store. Inside, it’s empty. I’m dat­ing Kat, and I try to talk about things other than strange old men and immortality. I spent my huge Penum­bra pay­out on an apartment — a tiny, tiny San Fran­cisco apartment. And I found a new job, just part-time, mak­ing ani­mated web adver­tise­ments for the one insur­ance com­pany that’s still in busi­ness.

With the other part of my time, I’m research­ing the life of a guy named Ajax Penum­bra. I’m trying to piece it all together, try­ing to under­stand him. It turns out he knew a lot of peo­ple in this town. It’s just that most of them died in 1906.

But I’m fol­low­ing the clues, one by one. What will I make of it all? A book? A movie? Super Book­store Bros., the video game? I don’t know yet. But I’m going to try to make it so won­der­ful that somebody else will want to carry it into the future for me. And then hand it off to somebody else. And some­body else after that.

Because I’ve got to meet old Mr. Penum­bra for dinner.

Thanks to Rachel Leow for a tweet on November 15, 2008: “just misread ‘24hr bookdrop’ as ‘24hr bookshop’. the disappointment is beyond words.” Thanks also to Andrew Fitzgerald, Betty Ann Sloan, and Jim Sloan for feedback on an early version of this story.

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