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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a bookseller’s dream, even ending in the mantra “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.” The novel is a bookish mystery involving a literary cult, Google hackers, and code breaking – what’s not to love?

This is the story of Clay Jannon, a jobless postgrad who happens into a night clerk position at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore. He never sells anything (is chastised for even attempting to make the store profitable), but is encouraged to take extremely detailed notes of the members of a secret club who come to the bookstore in order to borrow centuries old encrypted tomes. Out of sheer boredom, Clay creates a model of the store and stumbles upon a method to what he supposed was the madness of Penumbra’s customers. That discovery sends him spiraling down a rabbit hole of mysteries with a hunt for immortality at its core.

The plot may sound more silly than charming, but this is a great novel full of wit and charm. There is also a lot here to think about as Sloan takes turns skewering both the old guard and the new of literature and technology. People have been bemoaning the death of literature as we know it for as long as they have been decrying the end of the world. It was nice to read a novel that poked fun at the overblown idea, especially as it merged past and future. Not only is a physical bookstore (that supposed relic of the 20th century) literally recreated in the virtual realm, but the creators, Clay’s friends Kat and Mat, are each ensconced on one end of this spectrum. Mat creates effects for the movies the old fashioned way; he uses real materials instead of computer generated images. Kat works at Google and longs for a time wherein man is one with machine –
the ultimate dream of the technological age.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a comic literary adventure, but if you can take a breath and think about what Sloan is attempting to convey, it becomes obvious that this is more than a “high brow beach read.” Sloan has written a novel that deals with the cultural schizophrenia of our fast moving technological age with a wink and a smile at both stalwarts of old and new knowledge. Great read with a wonderful tone; definitely recommended.

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