Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
“Walking the stacks in a library, running your finger down the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.”
Clay Jannon is desperate for a job after being laid off when the snazzy bagel company he was marketing for went belly up. When he notices a help wanted sign on the door of an independent bookstore, he is ready to try anything. As soon as Mr. Penumbra asks "What do you seek in these shelves?" Clay is hooked. It turns out this book store has secrets. Sure, it carries the the requisite number of unappreciated works of genius Penumbra loves, but in the dark corners of the store, towards the top of the tall shelves, there are books for a special clientele. They come in, return a book, and borrow a new one, all eager to continue with solving the mysteries within those pages. The curious Clay and his friends (a programmer, a CEO, a maker, an anthropologist, and more gathered along the way) follow the trail of breadcrumbs that may lead to the secret of this secret society: the formula for immortality.
I quite enjoyed this book! The structure of Mr. Penumbra comes across as a gentler Murakami or a less overwhelming Stephenson (he actually references both authors). I put it as a more modern G.K. Chesterton, lightly examining complex ideas in a reflective, fun adventure that reveals a comprehensive, heart-warming, humanistic truth. What really is immortality? How important is it?
Sadly, the stakes are rather low. Clay does not have much investment in whether the books of the secret society are decoded or not. He does not believe they hold the secrets to eternal life, but he is doing it for his friend. And the stakes tend to stay at about medium throughout the entire book. However, what it lacks in stakes it makes up for in pure librarian nerdery.
This is the perfect book for library nerds! It mixes everything that is important to us, the old and the new, ancient typography with computer fonts, secret codes with computer codes, ebooks and regular books, CGI with clay models, artifact warehouses with high tech systems, smelly bookstores and shiny Google. Sloan appears to have a great working knowledge of both sides of the information coin, and it is delightful to read.
The surprising thing is, the sides are not pitted against each other, except by the villains of the book. The protagonists are all about integration and collaboration, using new technology to preserve and enhance the old, how "Old Knowledge" (information in books that have not yet been digitized) is the great untapped mystery to Google. And yet, new technology does not replace books. They live in harmony side by side and feed off of each other, just as Clay's team of experts all have special skills (programming, fabrication, graphic design, anthropology, hacking, museum curating, etc) that mix together to create intellectual alchemy. There is a section about "digital archaeology," which blew my mind. I had never thought of it before.
I found it extra delightful that the author/ and Clay, is a NERD nerd. When he was a kid, he and his friend Neal were obsessed with a series called The Dragon-Song Chronicles and played "Rockets and Warlocks" (a tabletop RPG). Questing language is infused throughout the book. It is not uber present, but occasionally you are stumble upon delightful sentences like this: "I explain it like the set up for a Rockets and Warlocks adventure: the backstory, the characters, the quest before us. The party is forming, I say: I have a rogue (that's me) and a wizard (that's Kat). Now I need a warrior. (Why does the typical adventuring group consist of a wizard, a warrior and a rogue anyway? It should really be a wizard, a warrior and a rich guy. Otherwise who's going to pay for all the swords and spells and hotel rooms?" And we find Clay listening to The Dragon-Song Chronicles over and over like an old song he knows very well, much like the way I reread the Chronicles of Narnia.
Two things sealed the deal with this book for me. First, my version glows in the dark. I did not know this until the last night I was reading it and I turned out the lights to go to bed, and BAM! It glowed.
Second was the final paragraph of the book which, as a library nerd, made me cry:
"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 the right time."
Books Like This:
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
Hard-Boiled Wonderland by Haruki Murakami
The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher