Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan
Completed 9/18/2015, Reviewed 9/19/2015
4 stars

After reading a heavy Tolkien tome, I needed something fun.  “Mr Penumbra” fit the bill perfectly.  It’s a light romp through secret societies, ancient books, and Google.  Clay has been laid off from his web designer job and finds work at a twenty-four hour bookstore.  But it is no ordinary bookstore.  It has a quirky owner and quirkier clientele who check out odd old tomes with unintelligible text.  He quickly becomes obsessed with the books bringing in modern technology to unravel the mystery.  Soon he is in the midst of a 500 year old secret society that might have the key to immortality. 

The best thing about this book is that it is fun.  Clay is a 20-something who just kind of fell into his last tech job.  When that job goes away, he’s rather directionless.  A lot of people should be able to relate him because he’s reminiscent of those of us in the techie biz not knowing what to do next when one job goes away, and wishing we could just work in a bookstore or a coffeeshop.  Then when you do, you get intimately involved with it because you love it.  I myself had that experience when I got laid off from a great IT job and went to work at a coffeeshop.  That ended up being my favorite job ever. 

On a deeper level, the story is an obvious metaphor for the conflict between traditional and digital books.  There are people who love the feel and smell of a book, who love to go to a library or bookstore and walk among the stacks.  While I’ve taken to the e-reader (I’m unintentionally ironically reading this on one), there’s still nothing like the feeling of finishing a book and sitting with it in your hands as you ponder the experience you just had with it.  But like the album and the 8-track tape, books are probably doomed.  However, once digitized, there’s so much more that can be done with it, as even Mr. Penumbra finds out. 

At its heart it’s simply an enjoyable read.  It’s sort of like “The DaVinci Code” without the cheese and melodrama and a little more YA oriented.  I found it only dragged a little near the beginning when the author spent a little too much time talking about Google, but it does figure greatly in the rest of the story.   I was going to give this book three stars, but had to go with four to correctly reflect how much fun the adventure is.  

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