“I would absolutely, positively, freeze my head.” Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

2012; Text Publishing.

224 pages; $28.99.


Gasp! A book that’s not part of my Literary Exploration thing!


There was a fair bit of buzz around Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore after it came out last year. It was recommended to me a few times; I’m interested in the debates around paper versus electronic reading. When I learned that the novel was about a twenty-something semi-deadbeat who works in a musty bookshop, well. I can resist only so much vicarious seduction.

There may be a spoiler or two below, but not much more than is revealed in the blurb. You are warned. 

Mr Penumbra was a pure, vicarious joy to read. It’s no secret that I love crusty old books, and working a night shift in a place which, in my mind looked like Archive in Brisbane, with only myself and the occasional odd night person for company… well, it sounded like heaven. Read into that what you will.

The book tells the story of Clay Jannon, a recently-unemployed Silicon Valley tech nerd. After the economy crashes, there’s not much work around for wunderkind graphic designers; he stumbles into the titular bookstore and begins working the graveyard shift. The store has a few new and second-hand books at the front (much being made of Dashiell Hammett), and towering, shadowy shelves of mysterious tomes at the back. Naturally, Clay is forbidden from opening these. Mysterious!

To begin with, nothing much happens (as to be expected – 3am is not traditionally a good time for book sales) except that, occasionally, strange old people will come in, return one of the mysterious tomes, and withdraw a new one. Clay is, naturally, quite curious, and being a Millennial tech nerd, starts using his computer to look for patterns. He meets Kat, who works for Google, who quickly becomes involved in the pattern search. From here, Mr Penumbra becomes a treasure hunt. Clay and his friends use computers, programs, and Google to try to break an ancient code, earning the ire of a traditionally-minded secret society.

Which brings us to the theme of Mr Penumbra: old versus new. Clay uses modern methods – data visualisation, book scanning, and the like – while the society prefers to use the old methods, citing it as the only way to stay in the spirit of the hunt. It’s an old battle – the fun of solving the puzzle versus the satisfaction of having the answer. Of course, even using the power of Google (did I mention Google yet?), the puzzle is not so easy to solve, and… well, anyway. I was always a strong proponent of paper books. I vowed I’d never buy a Kindle. Ebooks have no heart, no soul, I said. The convenience of carrying a zillion books in one device does not outweigh the feel of paper under your fingers. And the smell! New or old, books smell great.

‘”The smell!” Penumbra repeats. “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”

Hm. Never mind, then. I got a Kindle as a gift, later, and was immediately converted. There’s something about the feel of that in your hand, too – not to mention the whole ‘magic word-displaying rectangle’ thing. Sometimes I forget that we’re in the future. Mr Penumbra talks about Kindle a lot; Mr Penumbra himself is a member of the traditionally-minded secret society, but is also curious about new book-related technology. He’s also interested in Google (I can’t remember if I mentioned Google yet) and how it can help solve the puzzle.

The theme is interesting and timely – a lot of people seem to swear by paper or electronic books, and many happily embrace both. Beyond reading, it also opens up questions about whether technology can take the fun out of things. It reminded me of solved games, where the outcome can be predicted at any point. Or how an online journalist hunted down the human behind everybody’s favourite twitter spambot, horse_ebooks. Mr Penumbra argues that sometimes, there’s value in observing something mysterious and beautiful without trying to figure out how it works. Sometimes the value is in the doing, not in the solution. Or, at least, in working things out yourself, rather than just Googling it.

Did I mention Google? Mr Penumbra does. A lot. I mean, one of the main characters works there, and there’s plenty of other tech-brand namedropping (I was especially pleased to note references to Mario and xkcd), but it got a little bit out of hand. It might just be an offshoot of the other thing that dragged me out of Mr Penumbra‘s world – the coincidences. Or serendipity, whatever you want to call it. My point is that, when Clay has a problem, he also knows someone who has the exact set of skills to solve that problem. The first few times I thought, sure! He lives near Silicon Valley, makes sense he’d meet someone who works at Google. He needs to make an exact replica of something, and he knows someone who works at Industrial Light and Magic as a genius prop-builder. But then, later, he needs to track down an antique artifact  lost for a century. And… he knows someone who has access to the Secret Museum Artifact-Finding Database.

These are nitpicks. I loved this book – first, because it let me imagine I was working night shifts at a second-hand bookshop, and later because I love old-fashioned puzzle quests. The rafts of pop culture references, the most I’ve seen since Ready Player One, were fun and generally unintrusive (as references should be). I could say that Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will appeal to anyone has an opinion in the paper vs ebook debate, but really it will appeal to anyone who loves books, or even just a good contemporary adventure story.

Do you love your bookshelves, or prefer Kindle-y simplicity? Do you think Google is going to take over the world? Has it already? Drop me a comment!


1 Comment

Filed under review, words

One response to ““I would absolutely, positively, freeze my head.” Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

  1. Wow, you’re allowed to read books that ain’t part of the challenge? good to know. While I didn’t like this book as much as you, I do think Google is taking over the world and that worked well in this book

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