Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

mr penumbraClay 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.

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12 Responses to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

  1. realthog says:

    Everyone liked it except me.

    And me. Rather in the same way that you describe, I didn’t actively dislike the book: it was just that all the hype (and even friends’ recommendations) had led me to expect something pretty special, and all I got was something that wasn’t quite mediocre but was only a cut or two above that. And, exactly as yourself, I ached for the novel to be a lot more about the love of books and bookstores.

    The book is very fluently told, though. I’ll grant it that. It’s just that I felt I’d come to the supper table and moderately enjoyed the act of eating, yet gone away with my appetite unsated.

    • Jenny says:

      I suppose it rolls along, you’re right. For me, it just didn’t build up to anything good — a couple of nice set pieces, that was all.

  2. Charity says:

    Most of the people I know personally who love this book are Silicon Valley computer folks. I’m not a Silicon Valley computer person, so maybe that’s why I didn’t love it. I liked Sloan’s descriptions of San Francisco, and I, too, liked the typography bits, but the present tense and the genius computer people didn’t do it for me. I wrote in more detail about what I didn’t like about it (and about what I did) on my blog. (Insert discreet link here.) I’m glad to know I’m not alone in not loving it.

    • Jenny says:

      I cracked up at the part in your review about being able to hear the uplifting indie-pop soundtrack. I don’t agree with you about the present-tense storytelling, because that doesn’t bother me at all (and certainly not in Wolf Hall, where I think Mantel is a master stylist) but the rest was spot on! Thanks for the link.

  3. Swistle says:

    I’d read so many INTENSE RHAPSODIC RAVES about this book, it baffled me when I read the book and found it ordinary. Like a Dan Brown book, though admittedly better than THAT. But…reminiscent of that.

    • Jenny says:

      Ah, see, I had only read Jeanne’s review at Necromancy Never Pays, and it sounded interesting, and I trust her. I completely agree that this was reminiscent of Dan Brown, with the conspiracy and the mediocrity, only this time with millenials and manic pixie dream girls.

  4. biblioglobal says:

    It’s not even good from a computer perspective. I’m surprised by the commenter who says that they know computer people who like it. Trying to avoid being too spoiler-y, but there is absolutely no way that the computer wouldn’t have been able to solve the central puzzle. It would have been trivial. (I did like the section about the storage warehouse though!)

    • Jenny says:

      I know very little about computers, but I thought, myself, that the explanation of why the computer didn’t solve the puzzle sounded like bullhockey. Nice to be validated!

  5. Jeanne says:

    I loved this book. But I often dislike books about books. They never can really get at what book lovers love, because if they did, it would be like a hallway full of mirrors, or something.

  6. litlove says:

    I confess I didn’t get more than about a third of the way through it. ‘This is about a bookshop?’ I wondered to myself. Plus it was implausible – no young male geek I have known would get himself a hot girlfriend and then take it all quite so much for granted….

  7. Teresa says:

    I’m always skeptical when I see raves of books about books. I think Jeanne’s onto something in her comment. Most of these books don’t adequately capture what I love about books, and if they did, I might find them boring. It seems like essays about books, like Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris, are most likely to suit me.

  8. Stefanie says:

    I read this one and enjoyed it though there were plenty of irritating moments and it was a big mental shift to go from thinking it was about a bookshop to having it turn out to be something else. But I managed to find pleasure in the mystery/puzzle aspect of the story and I also found it very satisfying that Google couldn’t ultimately solve the problem.

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