On Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

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What starts as a slightly sketchy job opening working the night shift in a 24-hour bookstore nestled beside a questionable establishment named Booty’s soon leads readers on an epic adventure, fueled by the limitless potential of computer technology and the hunger for immortality. Attempting to categorize Mr. Penumbr’as 24-Hour Bookstore is quite the task; is it science fiction? Adventure? Mystery?  If I knew that the book’s genre classification mirrored any of the above, I may not have been so inclined to read it. And if I knew the general subject matter of thisnovel before I checked it out from the library, I also may not have been so inclined to read it. But the hype kept this title on tons of best-seller and must-read lists, so I cracked it open as soon as I got home from the library. And it was took me on such a delightful and engrossing journey that I finished the book in two short evenings – a pleasantly surprising read in much the same way I found Ready Player One to be.

Author Robin Sloan’s story begins with Clay Jannon, an unemployed San Francisco-based web-designer who chances on a help wanted sign in the window of a 24-hour bookstore. Desperate for work, Clay accepts the position of night clerk from the store’s owner and namesake, Mr. Penumbra. The fact that the bookstore remains open all night long is curious enough, but further oddities of the shop reveal themselves immediately. There are two distinct sections in the bookstore. The first is the short shelves up front containing a limited number of titles typically found in bookstores, which occupy a relatively small portion of the shop. The vast majority of the store, however, is devoted to towering shelves of mysterious and beautifully bound ancient books, tall stacks that require the climbing of ladders if a clerk hopes to procure any of the volumes contained therein. Despite Mr. Penumbra’s strict order to never break the spine of the books belonging to the second category of the store’s inventory, Clay soon discovers that they contain impenetrable code rather than dense prose after one of his visiting friends takes a look inside one such volume.

Stranger still is the store’s clientele. Apart from the sparingly seen legitimate shopper, drifting in with the express purpose of purchasing a book, Mr. Penumbra’s store is frequented by a contingent of quirky characters who utilize the inventory of coded books as though it was a lending library. This rotating cast of readers enters the store at all hours of the night, though Clay will work many shifts without seeing a single soul cross the Mr. Penumbra’s threshold. One of Clay’s odder duties is to carefully document each and every visitor to the store, including their build, manner of dress, and demeanor, in the shop’s age-old ledger books.

When Kat Potente wanders into the store while awaiting her bus, Clay is immediately smitten by the adorable Google-employee who effortlessly cleans up the code he is working on to create a 3D digital model of Mr. Penumbra’s store. As Kat and Clay grow closer still, she reveals a staunch belief in the ability of computer technology to outpace human intelligence, the perfection of an unimaginable future, and the idyllic dream of immortality. The quiet secrets of an antiquated bookstore and the limitless power of the world’s leading internet-search engine soon merge in a way that the young lovers employed by these respective companies could never have presumed.

And so the stage is set for a delightful adventure that could only take place in the 21 century. Uber-internet-savvy Kat unveils a multitude of web tools which allow Clay to uncover the perplexing patterns of Mr. Penumbra’s cultish band of repeat customers borrowing coded books. But this isn’t only a journey set in the virtual world; Clay and Kat, along with Clay’s childhood friend Neel, follow the case on a physical journey to track down others involved in Mr. Penumbra’s scheme, ultimately aiding Clay’s boss in the process. Clay’s resourcefulness proves itself again and again as he relies upon his talented network of nerdy friends and his own intelligence to solve the multitude of puzzles surrounding the cryptic books in stock at Mr. Penumbra’s.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore may sound like a novel for bibliophiles, but it’s much more bizarre and complex than that. Easily in the running for one of the most uniquely imaginative novels I’ve ever come across, the narrative reads like a Murakami novel (which may explain why I took to it so much). This is a story containing dark-robed decoders in underground reading rooms, weightily important typeface, historical entertainment storage facilities whose self-propelled, wheeled shelves contain more artifacts than any museum could hold, and the high-paced, green-grassed, and blue-skied Google complex. Stretching from the hills of San Francisco to subterranean New York City, Clay’s effort to understand the secretes of Mr. Penumbra’s books dwells upon the vast potential of computer technology but vacillates between its good virtues and evil effects. It is a meditation on old versus new knowledge, evoking in readers’ minds long pro and con lists relating to our newly digitized world. And Kat’s pursuit of immortality, a token of her bottomless optimism and enthusiasm for all technology’s potential, cannot be ignored as it is one of the great questions readers must ask themselves.

At times unpredictable (although the key to the master puzzle does become increasingly obvious to readers as we near the book’s end), constantly exciting, touched with humor, always thought-provoking and endlessly satisfying, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was simply a brilliant read.

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