Friday, December 28, 2012

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

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was the surprise of the year for me.  I had heard rumblings about it but wasn't fully committed to investigating it further until my librarian recommended it to me.  The day before we left for Christmas break she called me down to the library to pursue the new shipment of books she had acquired, so I could pick my holiday reading.  Sloan's novel was there as well as Ally Condie's Matched and Crossed, which have been on my TBR forever, so I snapped them up.  I decided I needed a little break from YA and series, so I picked up Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore first.  I didn't really know what it was about, but as Jamie at The Perpetual Page Turner recently wrote, there is a beauty in going in blind - no expectations, and what I found on the other side was fascinating, slightly mysterious, and overall satisfying.  The only book I read this year besides Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl that was so compelling I read it in a day, this novel is a brilliant commentary on the intersection of print and web-based technologies and the dangers of dependency on both.

The novel follows main character Clay Jannon, a fledgling designer, through his ordinary life dealing with ordinary things like layoffs, job searches, roommates, and relationships, but all of that changes when, on a whim, he enters Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, whose front window boosts a "We're Hiring" sign.  Immediately, Clay is intrigued if confused by the store's shape, size, and contents - most of which are books he's never seen or heard of - as well as its mysterious owner, Mr. Penumbra.  Clay takes the night shift, which brings him in contact with Mr. Penumbra's many colorful patrons as well as Kat, a self-proclaimed Googler, and when his curiosity gets the better of him, he is plunged into a world of cryptic texts, secret societies, and archaic methods of coding and decoding.  Can Clay and his friends convince Mr. Penumbra and his patrons that technology can help them on their quest?  Can they uncover the secret to immortality encoded by "The Founder" hundreds of years ago?

This book is a mish-mash of genres that blend into a seamless commentary on our ever evolving relationship with technology.  It's part typographer's Bible, archeology dig, Hardy Boys mystery, literary criticism, and techie manual.  The novel highlights the power of following your instincts and daring to make a mark on the world. In his epilogue, Sloan brings the book full-circle and reflects on some of its more philosophical aspects.  Almost like a challenge to the reader, he writes, "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" (288).  Ultimately, it is about the saving power of literature - how it can make you climb out of yourself - how it can sustain you. 

If you're not yet convinced that you need to read this book, I leave you now with my favorite quote from the novel: 

"Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means.  It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf" (143).

Sloan's novel is that secret passage in the bookshelf that so many of us have longed for but have yet to find.

Best matched with bibliophiles and techies.


  1. I bought this one a few months back but still haven't read it. I've read such wonderful reviews for it, including yours, that I'll have to make a point of reading it in 2013.

    1. I think it's a great book to begin the new year. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Someone at work recently recommended this to me, but he and I have very different reading tastes. SO, I'm glad to read your review because I'm more intrigued now and actually want to read it! Great review, Kristin.

    1. You totally have to read it - it was unlike anything I expected (in a good way)! I picked it up on a recommendation as well and was not disappointed.