I read Robin Sloan’s first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a few years ago. I loved it. It’s geek manna. There are codes, references to Tolkien and D&D, 500-year-old codexes, technology, epic quests, Google, and even a fictitious fantasy trilogy. There’s even an impossibly vertical bookstore—with ladders. It is an absolute riot.
Here are five reasons why you should read it:
1: It’s funny!
Sourdough is a wry, dry look at the life of millennials. It satirizes the absurdities of modern life. The novel opens in a robotics factory where a team of extremely bright professionals works day and night trying to make humans obsolete. This sentiment pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the novel.
2: It examines man vs. machine.
Following on from reason 1, the book examines the natural vs. the synthetic. The sourdough at the center of the story is a living thing, and out of it grows central character Lois’s desire to make bread. Prior to that, all she ate was take-out and a synthetic nutrient slurry. Lois works for a tech company specializing in robot arms. The company’s aim? To replicate everything a human can do. This is a story about the balance between expediency and experience.
3: The sourdough starter is a metaphor for a tech company.
It all begins with a start-up. I don’t want to spoil the novel too much, but I’ll say that the success of the sourdough starter and the lengths needed to help it grow are most definitely metaphorical. Sourdough is pretty much the best food metaphor created since the invention of the banana.
4: Is there anything faker than fake authenticity?
If one strand of the novel is expediency vs. experience, another is true authenticity vs. faux authenticity. Modern society is continually pushing for a more real, more natural experience, even at the expense of common sense (if in doubt, read about “raw water” here). But as Sloan highlights, the push for this is often driven by the marketing department.
The novel examines authenticity and the battle lines drawn between authentic and synthetic, paying particular attention to food. The novel juxtaposes traditional sourdough, a San Francisco institution that has used a culture of microbes to provide sustenance for decades, with synthetic, modified superfoods. Sloan asks: Is there a difference? And if so, why?
5: It will make you want to make bread!
Particularly sourdough. It’s impossible to read Sourdough without wanting to make bread. The richness of sourdough’s history and the genesis of its starter are fascinating. The way Sloan describes it, it’s impossible not to want to have a go at making it yourself. I highly recommend you do.
Much as Lois finds in the book, there is something deeply satisfying about creating something from scratch. Especially something as primal and life-giving as a loaf of bread.
So there are my five reasons for reading Sourdough. It’s a deliciously metaphorical novel that is more than worthy of your attention.
If you want to see my other 5 Reasons to Read posts, click here.
Disclaimer: I was sent a copy of Sourdough in order to write this review.