Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
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?