I had ordered Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore based on a recommendation I found on Flavorwire. Written by Robin Sloan, this is his first book.
Recession has caused Clay Jannon, a web designer to be out of a paying job. He finds work at Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour book store, run by the titular man. When being screened for the job, Penumbra asks him, “What do you seek in these shelves?” The answer to that will unfold the secret to immortality, which a secret order has been looking for, over the last 500 years. An answer that possibly cannot be found without using the technology and tools at our disposal today.
Clay works the night shift as a clerk at the book store. The customers for the books are few. However there exists a shelves of books at the back of the bookstore (called the Wayback List), which seem to not have been published anywhere else. These books attract a weird base of customers, who from time to time issue the books for their own perusal. While told no to open the books, curiosity gets the better of him, and Clay realizes that these books contain coded text. But Clay doesn’t limit himself to pen and paper like these customers do, and uses his computer to crack the code.
In this process he meets Kat, who works at Google. She dresses in the same tee with a ‘Bam’ on it, is an expert at data visualization, wants to be a Project Manager at work, and is thrilled by the idea of Singularity (where technology and humans become one, a point beyond which we cannot even fathom what lies ahead). Enlisting the help of Kat and a childhood friend Neel Shah (who is start up owner that deals with computer generated 3D human bodies, but predominantly breasts), they approach Penumbra with the solution.
Instead of being mad, he is glad that they cracked it to the point of being impressed at their use of modern technology with ease. Penumbra however, disappears the next day. Worried, they form a team (A wizard, a warrior and a rogue) and trace him to New York. They find a symbol similar to the one outside his bookstore at the entrance of the building, which Penumbra tells them is a front for the secret order called the Unbroken Spine. Their objective is to search for the secrets to immortality, clues to which have been left in yet another coded text written by the founder of the order (aptly named as the Founder’s Puzzle).
The symbol for the Unbroken Spine
They determine to now solve this puzzle which the Unbroken Spine have failed to do for 500 years in spite of having used some brilliant mathematicians and cryptographers.
The book is an easy read. As a narrator, Clay describes his world in detail. His thoughts and observations are interesting. Take his description of his girlfriend Kat:
“…is a Googler. So, she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a cute way.”
When she wears the same tee shirt when she meets him the next day, he thinks that “(a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical t-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.”
There are more layers to the book than just the decoding of this text. There is an underlying current about the transition from old to new, from traditional methods to new found. This is exemplified in the form of books and e-readers. There is a time when even Penumbra wonders in awe at the Kindle and other e-readers, as to how volumes and shelves of books condense into one hand held device.
I have only two grievances with the book. The primary one, as with most books that I have loved is that the book feels too small. I want more of it, where the story arcs are longer and drawn out. This is something, I wouldn’t hold against the author. He does the story justice in 300 pages. The second grievance is that the adventure feels too easy. It’s not that it has not been described well, or isn’t intriguing and involving; it’s just that when the characters face obstacles, they are able to overcome them with some stroke of luck, or a specific skillset/resource one of their friends has.
The book is a treasure trove for book lovers. There are many wonderful lines that would make readers smile with joy, probably a reflection of Sloan’s own love for reading. I will leave you with some such lines.
“Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.”
“I’ve never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say it’s a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely takes place in your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes”
“…this is exactly the kind of store that makes you want to buy a book about a teenage wizard. This is the kind of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard.”
“Some of them are working very hard indeed. “What are they doing?” “My boy!” he said, eyebrows raised. As if nothing could be more obvious. “They are reading!”
“A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”
“He asked <…> Rosemary, why do you love books so much?
And I said, Well, I don’t know <…> I suppose I love them because they’re quiet, and I can take them to the park.”
Front cover of Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore