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

Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreI think I just found my new favorite book.

There were definitely a few books throughout this year where I thought I could maybe make that statement about (i.e. “The Signature of All Things,” “Stardust”). But “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan is in the top slot right now. Probably for a while.

It’s the Great Recession, and Clay Jannon is out of a job as a San Francisco web designer. On one of his many walks, he sees a “Now Hiring” sign posted on the window of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. He lands himself a job as the night clerk, and after a few days, Clay discovers there is more to the store than just the short shelves of popular books in the front. The towering shelves in the back, which Clay dubs the Waybacklist, hold secrets only certain customers seek out. The novel combines books and tech to create a journey to solve the bookstore’s greatest secret.

A friend of mine from college messaged me about a year ago telling me that she had just finished reading “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” and that I would really like it. I typed the book title onto one of the sticky notes so I wouldn’t lose track of it. By the time the book was available from the library and I was a couple of chapters in, I knew it would become one of my favorites.

So what made this book so great?

This book felt like a modern mystery/fantasy adventure. Clay’s favorite book series, “The Dragon-Song Chronicles,” is a main focus throughout the book, and he likens their journey to figure out the bookstore’s secret to a Rockets & Warlocks adventure: Clay is the rogue, Neel is the warrior and Kat is the warlock. They seek out the Unbroken Spine society and to crack Aldus Manutius’ codex vitae, which has been unsolvable for nearly 500 years.

Of course we’ll accept it. That’s what you do on a quest. You listen to the old wizard’s problem and then you promise to help him. (132)

It’s the perfect storyline for millennial bibliophiles. Clay lost his job as a marketer and web designer during the Great Recession, and finds himself at a 24-hour bookstore. He utilizes his knowledge of coding to build a 3-D model of the bookstore, in attempt to predict which books the mysterious patrons will borrow next. In attempt to crack Manitius’ codex vitae, his girlfriend and Google engineer Kat creates a project to have use all of Google’s resources to solve the code. Clay is resourceful, using his connections to slowly work toward solving the Unbroken Spine’s mystery.

Even with Clay’s (and Kat’s and Neel’s) proclivity for technology and the Internet, there is still a reverence for books and what they stand for. Even Mr. Penumbra tries to get the Unbroken Spine to shift toward using more technology. This book shuts down the argument that books and technology cannot coexist, that e-readers will replace physical books, etc. Books are stories, which have taken a variety of formats since humans first started storytelling hundreds of thousands of years ago. Technology is just a new form for it.

I don’t believe the immortality part, but I do know the feeling that Penumbra is talking about. Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits. (145)

I finished this book wanting to walk around Chicago to see if there was a 24-hour bookstore I would be able to work at while teaching myself how to code. I wanted to find a secret society, or even just a centuries old mystery to solve. I wanted this story to last a little longer, to even find a way into the story itself. Maybe I’ll try an audio version of this book.

When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes. (234)


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