Literary Adventures with Mr. Penumbra

I’ve finally been able to get back to reading.  I instantly felt more sane and more myself than I have in months.  Because I’ve spent the past two years in grad school, I have a lot of catching up to do.  As a result, my books of choice might be old news to you, but I’m going to mention them anyway.

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


I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.

This was the first non-school book I read after graduating, and after all the technical reading on cataloging rules and database search techniques I’d been doing, it was a perfect choice.  I remember reading a review of it at the beginning of the year and thinking I’d have to try and find it one day.  Then my mom read it and recommended it; one of my best friends read it (I actually have her copy now); and it won a 2013 Alex Award–one of my favorite awards for literature!  If that wasn’t enough to decide things for me, I found out that the cover glows in the dark. Sold!

Mr. Penumbra’s is a light mystery/adventure that manages to bring together the bibliophile’s world with that of the technophile, to a very entertaining effect.  Clay Janson–a twenty-something, unemployed web designer–finds a job as a night clerk in a San Francisco used bookstore.  It is immediately evident that everything about the bookstore is strange.  Dusty floor-to-ceiling shelves of rare books fill most of the shop, which are loaned to customers rather than sold, while the smaller, front portion sells used titles: “His [Penumbra’s] inventory is eclectic; there’s no evidence of pattern or purpose other than, I suppose, his own personal taste.  So, no teenage wizards or vampire police here.  That’s a shame, because this is exactly the kind of store that makes you want to buy a book about about a teenage wizard.  This is the king of store that makes you want to be a teenage wizard.”  It is Clay’s job to sell books, but more often it is to fetch the books from the back, shelve what is being returned, and document the eccentric individuals borrowing them.  Oh, and not to “browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved items.”  Obviously, that is a command made to be broken!  What ensues is quest to solve a book-based puzzle using technology (gasp!) that pits Clay against an ancient cult of sorts and propels the reader happily through this nerdy narrative.

Sloan mashes up books and technology into a story where both are respected and valued, no easy feat.  I’m always impressed with authors who incorporate modern technologies into their stories because there is the very real possibility that by the time the book is published, trends will have moved forward, leaving a story dated even as it sits on the new release shelf.  Sloan, however, goes for it.  He gives Google a major role in the story; Twitter, texting, and e-readers feature prominently, too.  The result is a contemporary novel that still carries the ancient vibes of an Illuminati tale.  To garner the latter, Sloan creates a backstory centered around the early publisher Aldus Manutius and even invents his own font, Gerritszoon–a nod to the 15th century typeface designer, Francesco Griffo.  Then he throws in a fantasy book series, beloved by the protagonist and important to the story as a whole. Really, there’s something for most nerds out there, and I love that this book interweaves it all.

Complaints?  Occasionally, Sloan becomes a little too fixated on a Google analysis or drawing detailed parallels between the fantasy story and his own. Perhaps this is because these things are often revealed first to Clay, who, in turn, presents the revelations to others, so that the reader must sit through the explanations twice.  The excessive description and repetition slow the narrative, which is otherwise told at a fast clip.  These are minor flaws, however.  At the end of the day, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and looked forward to coming home to it.  It was the most fun I’ve had reading in a long time.


One thought on “Literary Adventures with Mr. Penumbra

  1. Pingback: The 2013 Round-Up! | Books Rekindled

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