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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

October 23, 2013

After hearing good things about it from Harriet, I started reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, in two different bookstores before I finally broke down and bought a paperback copy–not a whim for a parent with two kids in college.

The new clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore finds him aptly named (penumbra: part of a shadow), as he is forbidden to look into the obscure books kept on high shelves in the back. This part of the plot only works for the few pages it has to because of the previous pages spent detailing just exactly how desperately the new clerk, Clay Jannon, needs to keep this job. After he succumbs to temptation, though, Mr. Penumbra doesn’t fire him, which is the reader’s first indication that more is going on here than it seems.

The second indication is how the story moves out of the bookstore when Clay meets Kat, a girl who works at google. During a conversation about how people thought differently from the way they do in the past and this will continue to happen until they can’t even imagine how people will think in another thousand years, Kat says: “it’s already happening….There are all these things you can do, and it’s like you’re in more than one place at a time, and it’s totally normal. I mean, look around.
I swivel my head, and I see what she wants me to see: dozens of people sitting at tiny tables, all leaning into phones showing them places that don’t exist and yet are somehow more interesting than the Gourmet Grotto.”

Soon Clay is making 3D computer models of the bookstore, working with an artist friend, Mat, to make a model of an old log book, and working with a collection of people at google, people from a 3D body imaging company, and people from an internet library to scan old books in an attempt to find the secret to immortality.

Along the way, there are some interesting details that turn out to be important, like when Clay and Mat need a particular font to reproduce the log book and Clay finds it in the internet library:
“I feel a pang of remorse as I download it, but really just a tiny pang. FLC Type Foundry is probably somehow a subsidiary of Time Warner. Gerritszoon is an old font, its eponymous creator long dead. What does he care how his typeface is used, and by whom?”

Some of the detail reminded me, a little, of how the young protagonists of a Cory Doctorow novel usually triumph over adversity, using the power of the internet. Clay and Kat use a computer sharing program called Hadoop to help them sort through information, and then they use a person sharing program she calls “Mechanical Turk. Instead of sending jobs to computers, like Hadoop, it sends jobs to real people. Lots of them. Mostly Estonians.” The characters think they’re in a Doctorow novel when Clay says “A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning.” But it doesn’t turn out to be quite that easy in this novel.

My favorite detail is when “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.”

Clay’s every move is motivated by friendship; this is important to the plot and makes for some amusing speculation along the way:
“I know Penumbra is in trouble somewhere, and I know it’s my fault. I don’t understand how or why, but it was undeniably me that sent Penumbra packing, and now I’m truly worried about him. This cult seems like it might have been designed specifically to prey on bookish old people—Scientology for scholarly seniors.”

After discovering more about the organization that he thought might have been a cult, Clay says “I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.” More is always going on than it seems, and in the end, Clay leads his assortment of friends to the discovery that “all the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.”

The book cover is filled with yellow luminescent book shapes that glow after you turn off the light, if they’ve been exposed to light. If you’ve put your glasses case on top of the book, or if your cat has rested its paw on the corner, there will be shadows.

So tell me–what will make you break down and buy a book, even in times of austerity?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. October 23, 2013 7:55 am

    Oh, Jeanne, that question is easy-peasy. If the book is a new book by a favorite comfort author, I buy it and call it food. No other criteria apply – that’s what libraries (and inter-library loans) are for.

    • October 24, 2013 10:13 am

      So we can’t survive on ideas alone, or on books alone, and that makes this act, in times of austerity, the equal of the adolescent reaction to being told you can’t live on love? 🙂

  2. October 23, 2013 9:45 am

    HA to Mumsy’s comment. Mumsy never ever ever uses the library. Facts. She has a wonderful and lovely library that she never ever uses.

    Very few things will make me break down and buy a book. The main thing is if I’m on vacation. I have bought more books on vacation than I would like to admit. It’s actually pretty perilous to put Vacation Jenny in proximity to a bookstore, especially an independent bookstore, because with those I also feel I’m doing right by the world.

    • October 23, 2013 7:27 pm

      Naughty girl! Jeanne asked about periods of austerity, of which I had MANY when you girls were small, and I totally used the library CONSTANTLY. So.

      • October 24, 2013 10:11 am

        My children don’t know that much about my library habits, either, because it’s important for parents to have secret lives.

  3. October 23, 2013 12:33 pm

    I was given a copy of this earlier in the year but haven’t yet read it. I bet I would have done if I’d paid good money for it! What I do fork out good money for are those books by favourite authors who are a bit off the mainstream. If I waited for the library to get copies I would simply never get to read them at all. That week we live on porridge.

    • October 24, 2013 10:15 am

      You should read it when you have a few hours free–it’s a quick read. And yes, my local library is the same way about stocking mainstream authors. They do take requests, if I can be that patient.

  4. October 23, 2013 1:25 pm

    Gosh. Good question. I’ll buy books for my kid at the drop of a hat. And as presents for people. For me? I almost always buy used (cheap) books or go to the library.

    • October 24, 2013 10:18 am

      I realized a weird thing about children’s books yesterday while at Half Price Books with Walker. I was in the children’s section and found a good copy of Roald Dahl’s The Vicar of Nibbleswick, which has always been one of our favorites, so we have a tattered copy with no front cover left. I stood there and thought that all our lives, Ron and I have collected children’s books, partly with the idea that someday our children would read them. What now? Well, I stood there and thought, we can read them. And maybe there will be grandchildren one day. And I bought the book (for $1.99) and then Walker re-read it on the way home.

      • October 27, 2013 12:43 pm

        Here! Here! I have a continually growing collection of children’s books, and rereading them is a special treat. They have become much more than themselves as family memories of time spent reading them overlay and mix with the actual stories. If anyone raises an eyebrow I tell them that I have grandchildren (which is true, but not why I have the books). My daughter has even gifted me some of my favorites. (She forgets though, which is why I have four copies of “The Secret Garden”)

        • October 27, 2013 3:55 pm

          That’s a nice story about your daughter.
          I gave my niece a copy of Roald Dahl’s book Matilda twice, because she never talked about reading it, so we figured she didn’t have it yet when Christmastime rolled around again.

  5. Jenny permalink
    October 23, 2013 11:54 pm

    My answer is the same as magpie’s. I buy books for my children quite often (though if I bought them everything they read, they wouldn’t eat) and as gifts for others. But for myself, almost never ever. I can’t remember the last book I bought for myself. Library and ILL only. This is partly budget and partly principle: support your library sort of thing.

    • Jenny permalink
      October 23, 2013 11:54 pm

      Oh, I meant to say the book sounds very good! I haven’t ever read any Cory Doctorow though, so perhaps I should start there?

      • October 24, 2013 10:19 am

        I really don’t think Doctorow is a pre-requisite for this book. Maybe the opposite–if you like some of the computer shenanigans in this one, you might like Doctorow.
        You would really like this book, I think.

  6. October 24, 2013 8:20 pm

    This sounds somewhat confusing but interesting. I’m not sure I ever bought books when our son was in college – I’d wait for the library to get it.

    • October 24, 2013 8:38 pm

      It’s not confusing at all. The plot evolves, and I never want to do too much plot summary, so I made it sound confusing when it’s not!

  7. October 25, 2013 6:05 am

    I ask for books for Christmas or birthday gifts, some years, but I’m not sure what is the last book I bought for myself. No kids in college…just daycare. And I’m busy enough that electronic reading gives me more than I really have time to absorb anyway. (I know you’re that busy, too, but this is one of my justifications for fewer books. Also…fewer things around the house to be gnawed/drooled on.)

    • October 25, 2013 8:23 am

      As you probably know by now, Ron and I are book collectors. If there’s a good book out there we might like to reread, we want to own it. Your attitude is more like the one I grew up with–an academic household acquires enough books without going around looking for more! There’s a lot more to read electronically now, too.

  8. October 26, 2013 2:32 pm

    Luckily I tend to prefer borrowing books to owning them, and used books to new, so for me it’s not really a matter of conscious economy or guilty splurging–I reserve that for good cheese.

    Times I buy: when something from the library is so good I want a copy on hand to give away; or else when a book makes me really, really want the author to be free to quit their day job some day and write even more books that as badly need to be written, as well as they can write them. A monetary vote of confidence. In the latter case it’s usually nonfiction, like Eric Rutkow’s American Canopy.

    • October 26, 2013 4:22 pm

      Oh, I like your guidelines for buying, the first one especially–it’s good to have a copy on hand to give away. I have less faith that my book-buying power is going to help anyone quit his day job.

  9. November 7, 2013 12:31 pm

    I am glad you enjoyed the book. I liked it too when I read it even though it turned out to be not what I expected. These days my bookshelves are so full I try to restrict myself to only buying books I want to keep forever, all others come from the library. I make exceptions for books I want to read but might not want to keep if I can’t get them from the library.

    • November 7, 2013 1:53 pm

      Ron has found an interesting loophole to the “bookshelves are too full” problem at home–he’s been taking some to work in the library, where he has a new office with lots of shelves. The only problem is imagining wanting one of them at midnight.

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