“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” by Robin Sloan


I decided to read “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” thanks to all the adulatory reviews it had received on Goodreads and Youtube. I thought that a novel so praised couldn’t bear any concealed disappointments and I was right. As any rabid booknerd, I love reading books about books, and this one happened to be particularly special. And so it came to pass that now it is my turn to contribute to the plethora of commendation for Robin Sloan’s ingenuity.

Clay Jannon has been duped out of his job in the virtual realms of web design and the pixels of logos of burger behemoths by the Great Recession. Unemployed and chronically bored with life, he whiles all his days away surfing the net for adverts and reading over and over again “The Dragon Song Chronicles” by Clark Moffat (who, dear Whovians and Sherlockians, may be Steven Moffat’s relative since he is dead and entirely apocryphal). One night, though, serendipity and curiosity lure him into Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which waged right next to a strip club cloaks a global conspiracy – the secret of immortality.

Clay’s extraordinary adeptness at climbing ladders lands him the plum job as a night clerk in the most peculiar bookshop-slash-library in San Francisco. While he catters for queer bookbats who barge in in the middle of the night to request novels from the deep end of the store, the protagonist becomes more and more fascinated with the Waybacklist as he refers it. In that dim and obscure section of the library are nestled books brimming with codes and enigmas instead of mysteries and punch lines.

“Turning the pages of this encoded codex, I realize that the books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in. This thing is a fortress with no front gate. You’re meant to scale the walls, stone by stone.”

And as you correctly surmised during his inextinguishable attempts to popularize and contemporize the bookstore, he will as well, try to break into the fortress with the help of his unique friends. They , the warrior, the wizard and the rogue, will embark on the quest they have always contemplated – the quest pertaining to their favourite adventure book and the quest to immortality. But will they manage to live up to other praised heroes or will they fail ignominiously?

Well, I’d love to tell you but all my friends condemn me for being a huge walking spoiler. All I can disclose that in all certitude, the right book at the right time may alter the course of one’s life.

“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” stands out from the rest of the literature about literature for it entangles the written world with the online one – something most bookworms are reluctant to do. The friendship that sparks up between old Penumbra, his ancient books and Clay, and his high-tech friends binds those two apparent opposites in a symbiotic relationship. It attests that books and technology may not merely coexist but thrive off each other.

A virtual world, on the one hand, constantly inundated and updated with information cannot exist without the traditional and old knowledge that resides in the ink of all pages around the globe – there would, otherwise, be a perilous precipice on the path of curiosity.  One can, on the other hand, benefit from the technological advances in order to decipher books better; I mean, Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, Goodreads, Booktubers and Bookbloggers. Thus, the novel renders the ubiquitous dichotomy between paper and electronics groundless. Here, we are after all, collaborating in our appreciation and fondness of books via technology.

This glorious unification answers the question I found most compelling and poetic in the whole read: “How can you stay interested in anything- or anyone- for long when the whole world is your canvas?” The answer is simple – you needn’t to. When you have so much notions, ideas, facts and information at your disposal, you simply can’t restrain to eat solely vanilla when you can have any other incredible flavor you hanker for. And by broadening the variety of your passions and interests, you could preserve people in your life much longer. Variety is the spice of life, right?

“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” will take you on a wild ride across the picturesque San Francisco to the buzzing metropolitan New York. It will introduce you to some of the weirdest and nerdiest characters you will ever meet and divulge to you secrets kept clandestine for centuries. I promise, you’ll have the time of your life reading it.

“After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this:
A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”




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