Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Book Store

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Book Store

By Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is the debut novel of American author Robin Sloan. Originally written as a short story on his blog, he soon expanded and developed the story into a novel. Sloan is a writer for today; a self-styled media inventor, his book is a gripping mystery set between discourse on the relationship between technology and traditional print media. Think The Da Vinci Code but for bibliophiles and programmers – complete with a crazy cult. Sloan’s book is an extension of his own ideas surrounding the competing worlds of the Internet monoliths, such as Google, and the small bookstore owner, like Mr. Penumbra.

The eponymous bookstore conjures up sensations of walking into Scribes, the English student’s haven. The door creaks and tinkles and the owner peers over a stack of books to welcome you. It is no different for our main man Clay. He’s been let go from his design job at New Bagel and is on the hunt for any work that might be going. This leads him unexpectedly to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore. Taller than it is wide, and sulking on the seedy side of town, the bookstore leads Clay further into a mystery that isn’t going to be solved in a hurry. Just like a good wine takes time to mature, Sloan never hurried his mystery. While I was hanging out for the ending, Sloan wove a tale that never rushed towards its destination, yet still maintained momentum. The novel’s pacing was the distinguishing factor in this literary adventure. The world that Google inhabited was fast paced, and as a reader I had an unnerving sensation of being surrounded by bright reds, yellows, and greens. The scenes with old Mr. Penumbra were slower and imbued with a sense of shadow and time. Mr. Penumbra’s name is not accidental and his life and person remain very much in the shadows of the story.

The mysterious book-cult the book shop supports is one that has been built upon the passing of time, and the passing on of knowledge, whereas the Googlers’ mentality towards knowledge is expressed very different. Clay acts as a link between the old world of books and time, and the new world of faster-than-fast Internet and instantaneous knowledge. While every good English student has debated the merit of reading too much of the author into their characters, I could not separate Robin Sloan from his protagonist. On his website Sloan discusses the meeting of the old and the new forms of knowledge sharing and Clay’s adventures through book-land and silicon valley, lead him to ask himself many of the same questions.

As our world becomes increasingly technical it was refreshing to read a book that celebrates the bibliophile culture, yet was also not afraid to explore the toys of the
future. While this book is a work of fiction, Sloan brings many pertinent debates to the fiction reading public. Libraries and bookstores have long contested these topics but the average book reader often uses the medium closest to hand. Be that a free Kindle book, an illegal download, or a hard copy book itself. By addressing a growing arena of debate, Sloan demonstrates his innovative mastery. He has brought the debate to the consumer, in a form that is both approachable and entertaining. Robin Sloan is this decade’s author to watch out for: either online or in your local bookstore. In a time where we are still learning the parameters of the electronic age, Sloan’s writing is topical and riveting. I couldn’t put this book down!
This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2014.
Posted 7:01pm Sunday 30th March 2014 by Imogen Davis.