Geek Book Review: “What do you seek in these shelves?” Learning the Secrets Inside Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan

Picador, 2012


three stars

“…this is exactly the kind of store that makes you want to buy a book about a teenage wizard. This is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard.” 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book about questions but there are no answers that could be found in there, the readers should find the answers themselves. Books become great if they are remarkable and the collective questions poised by Robin Sloan is what makes the book remarkable.

In here we find Clay Jannon, your typical millennial with all the knowledge of the modern world in his arsenal but who strangely likes the old world, especially books. Of course he was unemployed due to the recession, and with his credentials of making an award winning logo for a company set up by former Googlers, he tried to find a suitable job for his skills, but then he stumbled upon this bookstore which was opened 24 Hours, like a reliable fast food chain, met its owner, a certain old man named Ajax Penumbra, and answered the old question:  “What do you seek in these shelves?”

mr_penumbras_24_hour_bookstoreClay mirrors the uniqueness of our age group, the one trapped in the middle of the new and the old, but in this case, he had no choice but to stick with the job. Remember it’s the recession. So Clay was stuck inside the bookstore and was there to discover the secrets hiding behind its shelves, the people going in and out at night to borrow books, books which seemed to be not books at all but just a jumble of words, and the peculiar way these people dress up. All of these Clay has to write in a logbook. Every night. There’s a hundreds of questions inside Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore set up in the background of San Francisco (set in present day with a little over the top description of the city). This is somewhat Sherlock Holmes story, the excitement the readers would feel upon reading this book, what are the secrets, and is it dangerous?

What Clay brings into the table is his techy powers as he started creating a 3D model of the bookshelves and all the books it contain. And he’s got friends, techy, powerful, CEO level friends from all sorts of fields: movies, boobs recreation, and Google. Together they unraveled the mystery of the place and discovered the secrets of an old society called the Unbroken Spine, a group dedicated to decoding a book written by a certain publisher named Aldus Manutius, a book that they believe contains secrets to immortality. Seriously we have read tons of stories like this one but because of Clay and of how we relate to him in some ways, we still move on deep into the story, wary but excited of how this would end.

There are uncomfortable moments in the book as it tackled straight forward the issues at hand, the timelessness of the books and how the internet and all it represents could make them obsolete. This topic was discussed in so many other novels but the cool thing about this story is the characters and the side they represent, Mr. Penumbra on the side of the books (or more likely Corvina, the leader of the Unbroken Spine) and Clay’s friends who represent all things techy and modern. These characters tend to shift sides often in the story: Mr. Penumbra’s fascination of e-books and Clay’s girlfriend’s obsession with the old knowledge. All of the characters made good points on the advantages of the old and the new but what is really apparent in the story is the obnoxiousness of technology which tends to believe that it has all the answers, and who could have portrayed the obnoxious role better than a Googler?

“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.” 

In the end, the book is no Dan Brown, with all of the seriousness and depth of it. The incredulous ease on which Clay and his friends solve the problems is apparent until the very end of the story, more so on the end of the story, leaving the readers somewhat shortchanged. The revelation at the end will of course as with Dan Brown’s novel, leave us disappointed, like we’re still looking for more. But we have a happy ending with Clay and who knows, his bookstore might hold another tale to be told, or to be read.

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