Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2012
“I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.”
Mr. Penumbra’s exotic and extraordinary bookstore never closes.
Smelling of oak and old books, the bookstore is a relic from old in the middle of modern San Francisco. The carved wooden shelves stretch so high into the vertical space that the newest employee, Clay Jannon, feels certain there are bats up there. But bats aren’t the only concern for Clay. A few days into his new night shift job at the store, his spidey senses tell him there’s much more going on at Mr. Penumbra’s than can be seen by peering past the golden letters on the window glass. After all, how long can a book store that loans more books than it sells stay in business?
The long stretches of time between customers, or borrowers, give Clay plenty of opportunity to speculate and to begin to investigate the mystery. Each new piece of information he uncovers creates more questions than it answers. Each new development leads him to ask even louder: “Just who is Mr. Penumbra, and what is he up to?”
This is a fun book to read.
I laughed out loud from time to time. Sloan tells the story from the entertaining point of view of Clay Jannon. Jannon sees himself as an Ordinary Joe, so it is easy to identify with him and his foibles—even when he’s doing things Ordinary Joes would never manage. Don’t be fooled by Robin Sloan’s easy, engaging style though. There’s plenty to think about and learn from in this book. Scratch the surface of his topics (and by that I mean Google them) and you will learn things about the earth and typefaces and dolphins and anchors you never would have thought of.
Google plays a major role in this book, both in a marvelous way, (“How can you stay interested in anything—or anyone—for long when the whole world is your canvas?”) and a not-infallible way (“I used Google to translate this from Latin, so bear with me if I get some of the details wrong.”)
Sloan explores two main themes: (1) immortality and humanity’s relentless search for it, and (2) the balance of new and old.
In a series of events that only sometimes feel contrived and often have a James Bond-ian feel about them, the characters use Google, or old leather-bound books to solve the mystery. They create art with pixels, or with glue and paint. They learn new things through through computer searches, or through instinct and word of mouth.
“. . . some things have an aura. Others don’t.”
Sloan both lauds Google and realistically assesses its failures. He both lauds books and realistically assesses their limitations. He honours both the old and the new and demonstrates our need for a balance of both. And as for immortality, well, even a bookstore that never closes cannot achieve immortality. Or at least not in the same physical form.
Although . . . now that Robin Sloan has penned this book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore will live forever.
Posted on October 31, 2012, in Book reviews, Books for the beach, Books I bought, Fiction and tagged 25000 miles, Aldus Manutius, Bookselling, Clay Jannon, Gerritszoon, Google, Griffo, Penumbra, Robin Sloan, San Francisco. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.