Left high and dry when his job as a web designer of marketing materials for NewBagel, a small company engaged in the production of the “Platonic bagel,” goes down the drain when the economy tanked, Clay Jannon takes a job as a clerk in a bookstore. Thus begins Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. It is a very unusual bookstore; one that grows curiouser and curiouser the more both Clay and the reader learn about it. Never mind that working with a presumably dying medium like the book would seem an odd choice — even for a techie with limited skills — the bookstore run by the weirdly wizard-like Mr. Ajax Penumbra would seem, in its indifference to actually selling anything, doubly strange.
Narrow and thin, the Penumbra bookstore has shelves that seem to rise up three stories in height, but they are filled with old books that aren’t to be sold. Select customers, members of sorts, return one of these books and ask for another to replace it. Money never seems to change hands. The members themselves are every bit as odd as the owner. They come in all ages, but they appear very secretive about what they are doing. There is a tiny selection of more regular books for sale, but days can go by without anyone browsing among them.
It doesn’t take long for the intrigued Clay to take it upon himself to discover what exactly is going on. Together with a group of friends and acquaintances with a variety of modern technical skills, it’s a kind of nerdy A-Team: Clay’s pretty young girlfriend, who is a programmer at Google; a friend from high school who has gotten rich with an App for creating boobs; a computer hacker who never puts in a physical appearance, and a few others who get involved along the way. Very quickly the investigation becomes an all-consuming quest that leads them from the San Francisco bookstore through the Google campus to a Manhattan mansion and back to where they began. It is a quest that deals with cults and unbreakable codes through the miracles of technology.
Indeed, encrypted in this hunt for the meaning of Penumbra’s bookstore and the mysterious group behind it, there is an interesting meditation on the conflict between old knowledge as represented by books and new knowledge — technical knowledge. While never espousing a Luddite anti-machine position, it is clear that in the end, the book as a meaningful cultural force is not to be dismissed out of hand. “You will hold this book in your hands, and learn all the things I learned, right along with me,” Clay concludes on the novel’s last page.
Start reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and you will find it hard to put it down. First time novelist Robin Sloan knows how to keep you turning pages. Moreover writing from Clay’s point of view, his style is completely natural, deceptively conversational. The narrator draws you in, makes you feel his own wonder and eventual obsession.
The last book about books I read that was as intriguing was Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s wonderful cult classic The Shadow of the Wind. I have every expectation that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will be starting cults of its own.