Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is another book that I think I looked at and read the first three chapters of about fifty billion times before I finally bought a copy (it just came out in trade paperback, and the difference in cover was finally the thing that made me buy it, even though I liked the hardcover cover art better). I love books about bookstores. I used to work at a secondhand bookstore, and coming across a character who works in a bookstore, or a scene in a book that happens in a bookstore was always my favorite thing. Books about books and books about bookstores are always so good. Instead of finding a reference to a story that you like in a book that you’re reading, you find numerous references that just fill up the background of the setting, and it’s always fun to recognize things that you know in fiction.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore follows Clay Jannon, a character in his mid-twenties who is unemployed and running out of options for work. He remarks, “My standards were sliding swiftly. At first I had insisted I would only work at a company with a mission I believed in. Then I thought maybe it would be fine as long as I was learning something new. After that I decided it just couldn’t be evil. Now I was carefully delineating my personal definition of evil.” His job hunt eventually brings him to the bookstore, as it has a “Help Wanted” sign hanging in the window. He signs on for the late shift at the 24-hour bookstore, covering the hours between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

The shelves in the bookstore are close together and they stack all the way up to the ceiling. Clay describes Mr. Penumbra’s as disorienting, and compares it to other bookstores:

Let me be candid. If I had to rank book-acquisition experiences in order of comfort, ease, and satisfaction, the list would go like this:
1. The perfect independent bookstore, like Pygmalion in Berkeley.
2. A big, bright Barnes & Noble. I know they’re corporate, but let’s face it – those stores are nice. Especially the ones with big couches.
3. The book aisle at Walmart. (It’s next to the potting soil.)
4. The lending library aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, a nuclear submarine deep beneath the surface of the Pacific.
5. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Although Mr. Penumbra’s starts out invested in the physical book, the musty bookstore with its teetering shelves, it very slowly accounts for the influence of digital technologies on printed text. Clay begins to advertise the bookstore online, and then makes an electronic model of the bookstore on his laptop. He soon sees a pattern to the books on the upper shelf, and unlocking this secret marks his initiation into a book history mystery that has been worked on for hundreds of years by hundreds of individuals. Rather than using print-based methods of uncovering the mystery, he uses electronic ones, and the Google campus becomes a secondary setting of the novel. The image of the Google campus I had when reading largely came from the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn movie The Internship, but it actually came in really handy in visualizing where Clay was and what he was doing.

It’s interesting to watch play out, the conversation between print books and non-print books, and the way Sloan raises this discussion through a fun, creative, and intriguing story is wonderful. His writing shines throughout, especially when Clay remarks on aspects of books, mysteries, and history. For example, when he finds a huge warehouse that stores all kinds of historical items, he notes, “You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.”

I loved the way that Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore used print and electronic texts, canonical and contemporary references, and bookstores and Google Books to explore the way that texts are changing, and have been changing, in the twenty-first century.

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