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

penumbraThere’s that feeling that you get when you step into an old bookstore with shelves to the ceiling and rolling ladders and creaky stairs.  For me, it’s a feeling of possibility, like I’m stepping in to worlds unknown. I’m delighted to say that reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore gave me the same feeling.

As our hero wanders aimlessly looking for work, he steps into one such bookstore and begins learning about a secret world of bibliophiles who believe that the solution to one of our greatest quests can be found within the pages of a book.  Working the night shift, Clay meets some odd people, but there are a select group of customers who belong to Mr. Penumbra’s highly secretive book club, and who only borrow certain items, which are later exchanged for others.  Despite warnings not to get involved, Clay can’t help himself and quickly becomes immersed in this underground community.

And then just when you think this is an homage to the written word and intricately bound old tomes, enter Google, ebooks, and computer processing so fast that the human mind cannot comprehend it.  This novel is a book about loving books, but also an argument for writing in all its forms.  There’s no need to demonize the digital age here. Sloan does an outstanding job of making these two diverging worlds compatible and the result is a fast-paced story that stands as a testament to the written word in all it’s guises. 

This is exactly the kind of book for a 20-something year old who can move seamlessly from the dust of an old book jacket to the uses of Google Street View and back again, and is written from the point of view (and for someone) in a certain time in their life. Friends are doing well in emerging careers, or they’re not doing much at all.  People bounce from job to job and it’s perfectly acceptable to build a small town out of recycled materials in your living room. Working from 10pm-6am doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world, and you struggle to find some way to leave your mark on in the world. For me, this was the perfect book that had great timing, but for some, the subtle humour will be lost and the charm of this lifestyle won’t impress.  Don’t let that deter you though, the writing is excellent and the mystery will keep you reading regardless. 

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. (p.288)

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