Clay Jannon has lost his job in the Great Recession, and he really needs to keep a roof over his head. (Not just any roof, either: he lives in San Francisco.) So when he sees a Help Wanted sign in Mr. Penumbra’s very odd bookstore, he walks in and asks for the job. When the job turns out to be extremely peculiar — less of a bookstore clerk and more of a librarian to an ancient society of codebreakers — Clay doesn’t mind; he’s good-natured and curious and likes involving his friends, who have a mind-boggling array of talents. (One works for Google, one makes intricate model cities and monsters for films, one owns a software company that… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself what it does.) Gradually, solving the puzzles and breaking the codes becomes the Big Question for Clay and for everyone around him. Can they help Mr. Penumbra solve the Founder’s secret of eternal life?
I think my reading of this book was greatly impaired by my expectations of it. I want a book about a bookstore to be about the love of books, first and foremost. Instead, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, is mostly about computers. I have to share with you that I am so bored (SO BORED) with the endless barrage of articles questioning whether the Internet is going to kill books/ reading as we know it/ the independent bookstore/ the large bookstore/ our attention span / my pet hamster. Please! Folks! I’m reading over here! So when this novel turned out to be largely about the excitements of 3-D modeling and data visualization and OCR and large array codebreaking, I was annoyed. There was almost no one in the novel who was the least interested in the content of books, since most of the ones they were dealing with were either the encrypted means-to-an-end or the Potemkin bookstore hiding it.
I was also frankly quite irritated by the narrator. He’s inoffensive enough, I guess, friendly guy, harmless bookstore clerk suddenly embroiled in ancient mystery. But when he meets Kat, a brilliant woman who works at Google and who is interested in technology as afterlife, there was just not one single thing she said, no matter how smart or relevant, that he didn’t respond to (internally) with “cute” or “jealous.”
This girl is a Googler. So she really is a genius. Also, one of her teeth is chipped in a really cute way.
“At Google, we do them for search logs,” she says. “It’s cool — you’ll see some new idea flash across the world, like a little epidemic. Then it burns out in a week.” This sounds very interesting to me, but mostly because this girl is very interesting to me.
“Personally, I think the big change is going to be our brains,” Kat says, tapping just above her ear, which is pink and cute.
Arrrrrgh! Stop it! That would be irritating even if I thought it was well-written.
There were some good and interesting things about this book, of course. (Read the blurbs! Everyone liked it except me.) As I mentioned in my last review, for some reason I’ve recently had a run of reading that deals with books and immortality. Kat is devastated by the idea that our lives are so short. How do we counteract that? Vitamins, cryogenics, space bubbles? When she thinks the secret might lie in books, she puts all of Google’s mighty powers to work on Mr. Penumbra’s secret. The parts about typography were good, as well, and the crazy section about the storage warehouse.
Have you read this one? Am I wrong about it? I’m afraid I liked the book I expected it to be much better than the book it actually was.