I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore during my Spring Break vacation. It’s one of the most refreshingly geeky and witty books that I have read this year. The book weaved the elements of mystery, adventure, fantasy, and friendship to produce a narrative which exposed the tussle between the new-age technology and the older realm of books and print.
Clay Jannan is young and unemployed due to the recession. After being unable to find proper employment, he decides to work for a bookstore, so he goes from a successful web designer to a book salesman. But his job is much more than just selling books. There is a secret circle of readers who mysteriously show up at the odd hours of the night requesting books that he’s not allowed to peek into. To top that, he has to write detailed descriptions of them – from what they’re wearing to their mood, etc. This super basic summary does not do any justice to how awesome the plot really is. The truth is I’m writing this book review a little more than two months after reading it so it isn’t as good as it could be.
The honest reason I picked up this book is because it’s about books. I was at Jarir Bookstore, a couple of days before my flight and I had two books to choose from so I picked this one in a heartbeat. I loved reading it so much. It was funny and informative at the same time and I learned a lot about typography and the Google technology – though not all of the details may be true. The book also made a great case for why we need to go digital. It makes you question whether it is time to slowly let go of our obsession and love for print and embrace the technology which can help preserve knowledge and stories forever. The feel of paper, its earthly smell and the sound of pages turning are tangible to our senses and difficult to refuse – and I feel like this simple and beautiful experience is really what the story is all about. Personally, I’m all for paper and ink. The novel does combine the two mediums together and the result is wonderful.
The book was very entertaining and did not bore me at any point. The language was smart and witty and I devoured every word. The characters were unique and each had something to offer to the story and to the plot. There were many references to popular culture (graphic designing, online marketing, e-books, social media) and this was refreshing because I normally read books that are not very urban. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is both magical and contemporary which is what makes it awesome to read.
I felt that the ending wasn’t as exciting as I’d hoped and the love story was also unsatisfying. But I recommend this book to anyone who loves books, bookstores and reading.
The paperback version I own includes the bonus prequel Ajax Penumbra 1969 and it was pretty fun to read too.
Some Quotes I liked:
“Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.”
“He has the strangest expression on his face- the emotional equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.”
“A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”