Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan
Growing up, I remember hearing phrases about books bringing readers to a magical place. And I completely believe it, I have since I was a child. But I have not yet read a book that so vividly brings these phrases to life than Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Clay Jannon walks into the bookstore a little timidly at first. When he read the “Help Wanted” poster in the front window, he approached the opportunity cautiously. On the one hand, he needed a job. His previous employer, a San Francisco-based bagel company called NewBagel, was his “first job out of art-school,” and could have lead to great things had it not slowly gone under with the economic downturn.
On the other hand, “I was pretty sure ’24-hour bookstore’ was a euphemism for something, It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.” The location itself was a bit questionable: directly next door to an establishment featuring neon legs named Booty’s.
But the need for an income wins out, and he begins working as the night-clerk at the bookstore. For the most part, the job is what you would expect for the graveyard shift at a bookstore–relatively slow. But every so often someone would come in looking for a strange book, and his job shifted from ordinary to confusing.
Is this a book club? How do they join? Do they ever pay?
These are the things I ask myself when I sit here alone, after Tyndall or Lapin or Fedorov has left. Tyndall is probably the weirdest, but they’re all pretty weird: all graying, single-minded, seemingly imported from some other time or place. There are no iPhones. There’s no mention of current events or pop culture or anything really, other than the books. I definitely think of them as a club, though I have no evidence that they know one another. Each comes in alone and never says a word about anything other than the object of his or her current, frantic fascination.
With nothing else to do at night, Clay begins to investigate these unusual people that come to his bookstore. He looks into their actions and the books they check out–books he’s never heard of before. And the more he digs, the more he realizes he’s just scratched the surface of something much larger than he ever expected.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an adventure. Even though I had read the short story first, I was still turning pages and wondering what came next. The books the unusual patrons ask for are what trigger Clay to investigate the bookstore, and its owner, and they’re what keep him moving forward through the story. Books are what drive him forward.
But books aren’t the end-all. Sloan does a good job of bridging the often push-pull discussion of books and technology. Instead of a “one is better than the other” tone many take, he proposes that the best result can be achieved when both are used. Some situations require paper and ink, some are best handled with technology. But, above all, the content is what matters. How the content is delivered is, while important, often a separate conversation.
And it makes sense that he would take this stance: Sloan has spent a lot of time in both technology and writing. He’s worked at Twitter and Current TV, yet he also started a literary journal, Oats, while at Michigan State. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, now available in paperback, spent time on the New York Times bestseller list, was chosen as a “Top Book of 2012” by the San Francisco Chronicle and was New York Times Editor’s Choice.