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When page and screen collide.

October 11, 2012

Working in an independent bookshop is one of those jobs that people tend to make assumptions about. Incorrect ones. Like, that booksellers get to sit behind the counter and read all day, or that we’re all like Bernard in Black Books, drinking red wine and freely abusing ignorant customers (I wish). Alas, the reality is not nearly so interesting, particularly when you work in a shop like mine, where the computers are from circa 1985 and all the returns have to be pulled by hand (don’t even ask).

But it’s nice to hold onto this fantastical image of the quirky indie bookshop, and Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, the mysterious place at the centre of Robin Sloan’s charming and imaginative debut novel of the same name, brings it vividly to life, albeit with a very modern twist.

What’s special about Sloan’s novel is how seamlessly it blends old and new: it’s a mish-mash of Internet gadgetry and ancient artefacts, typefaces and printing presses, ereaders and leather-bound tomes, an old-fashioned quest narrative, and a modern love story—and, somehow, it all fits together like Bernard and a bottle of red.

Twenty-six-year old Clay Jannon is an affable, unemployed nerd with a passion for fantasy fiction and a talent for web design. When ‘the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century’ costs him his marketing job with a company called NewBagel, he’s at a loose end—until he finds Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore when he’s wandering the streets of San Francisco. While it’s ignominiously located next to a neon-signed bar called Booty’s, in ‘a euphemistic part of town’, Penumbra’s isn’t what it seems: inside, rows and rows of dizzyingly tall shelves are stacked with ancient volumes that appear to be filled with code.

Of course, after a mysterious encounter with old Mr Penumbra, who talks a little bit like a wise old wizard in a quest novel (‘I am the custodian of this place’), Clay gets the job of night clerk. From 10pm until 6am, he mans the desk, lending the ancient books of code to an odd group of customers who appear to be part of a secret society. It’s not long before Clay’s curiousity prompt him to start investigating: what do the symbols inside the books mean? What ancient mystery are Penumbra and his strange clients devoting their lives to solving? And will it get Clay a date with Kat, the hot girl from Google who wanders into the bookshop one fateful night?

Clay’s quest is a wildly imaginative and rather Potter-esque trip that encompasses everything from Gutenberg to Google HeadQuarters, a place where employees’ food is personalised with vitamins and natural stimulants. With the aid of his friends and colleagues, whose talents range from data whizbangery to esoteric archaeological knowledge, Clay begins to unravel the truth behind Penumbra’s bookstore and the part it plays in the mysterious Festina Lente Corporation.

At the heart of this journey all is the eternal human yearning for immortality, a desire that even the cleverest technology can’t give us (yet—Kat proudly tells Clay that Google is working on it via a project called Google Forever). But, as in any good quest novel, what turns out to be most important isn’t the symbols or the coveted objects, but the people who seek them, and the passions and ideas that bring them together.

In this unsettling climate of closing bookshops, and the growing popularity of ebooks and online retailers such as the Book Depository, you might not think that there could be any kind of union (imagined or not) between the technology of the future and the dusty bookshelves of the past. But Sloan has created such a delightful and fun fictional universe, and such a lovable cast of characters with which to populate it, that his ideas about how to embrace the future without losing or forgetting the past feel both inspiring and plausible. While his heroes can’t solve their mystery without the might of Google, they’re also lost without what Google employees amusingly refer to as ‘old knowledge’ (OK) and ‘traditional knowledge’ (TK): what’s existed in people’s heads, and in the pages of books, for centuries. “Imagine if we could make all that OK/TK available all the time, to everyone”’, one of Kat’s colleagues muses. At the heart of Clay’s quest is the desire to unite this knowledge with the leaps and bounds of modern technology—to bring the two together without losing something important, and indefinably human, in the process.

Is it actually possible? Who knows. For all that it touches on a very timely and topical issue, Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore has a lovely lightness of touch, and it resonates with Sloan’s obvious passion for the printed word. It’s a fantasy with its head rooted in reality, but it’s no less enjoyable and inventive for that—and no less a resounding testament to why we love stories, no matter what form they take.

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40 Comments leave one →
  1. October 12, 2012 11:29 pm

    Thanks for recommending – I will seek this one out…on the bookdepository, incidentally!

    • October 13, 2012 10:58 pm

      Ha ha, I’d never begrudge anyone using the Book Depository – I have to admit that I use it myself sometimes, even though I work in a bookshop. But ssshhh, don’t tell anyone…

  2. October 13, 2012 8:37 am

    Thank You :(

  3. October 13, 2012 8:53 am

    Reblogged this on misentopop.

  4. October 13, 2012 10:15 am

    I adore your blog. It’s great that you link to Boomerang. And I’m a huge fan of Black Books.

    In fact, I’ve met the real guy who the character of Bernard Black is based on, and I can tell you he’s even stranger in real life than his fictional counterpart. He owns a comic book shop in Edinburgh, has missing front teeth, and is generally high or drunk by 10am. I reckon he’s probably got a broom out the back that he swats customers with every now and again, so long as he doesn’t stumble over his own feet before he reaches the offending victim.

    I’ll definitely be checking out Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Sounds great!

    • October 13, 2012 10:52 pm

      WOW! I can’t believe you know the real Bernard – that’s so awesome. How’d you meet him? I didn’t realise Bernard was based on someone real, but of course it makes perfect sense. I know too many booksellers who wish they could act like he does at work.

      Thanks so much for reading my blog, and for appreciating its odd name. I hope you enjoy Mr Penumbra when you get your hands on a copy. (Perhaps you’ll purchase one from an angry, drunk, broom-wielding bookseller with no teeth?)

      • October 14, 2012 12:55 am

        I met the ‘real Bernard’ (his name’s Gus) when I was visiting my brother and sister in Edinburgh a few years back. His shop is around the corner from a pub where my sister worked for a while, and Gus was a regular. We all had a beer in his comic book shop after hours one night, and I couldn’t get Black Books out of my head the entire time. Very weird.

      • October 14, 2012 2:04 pm

        That’s so rad. I’m going to make it my mission in life to visit this comic book shop in Edinburgh.

  5. October 13, 2012 2:02 pm

    Nice work. This sounds like a book I would really enjoy. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

    • October 13, 2012 10:53 pm

      Thank you! Being Freshly Pressed is so exciting – suddenly people are actually reading my blog! Amazing.

      • thecheekydiva permalink
        October 14, 2012 11:58 am

        Well, it’s about time, if they haven’t been reading before. It looks like you’ve been at this for a while. Sorry it took you so long to be recognized for the nice work you do here. :-)

      • October 14, 2012 2:03 pm

        Aw, thanks :)

  6. October 13, 2012 2:54 pm

    Can’t wait to check it out!

  7. October 13, 2012 3:55 pm

    I’m going to have to add this to my list. It sounds fabulous!

  8. October 13, 2012 4:55 pm

    Wow this sounds like a good read. Reminds me slightly of “The Marriage Plot,” which takes the old Victorian marriage plot (ala Austen) and attempts to see if it still has any place in the modern world, where divorces seem to nullify the significance of true love and “til death do we part.” I’m going to grab this book now

    • October 13, 2012 10:55 pm

      Great! I know The Marriage Plot – I’m pretty sure there’s a review of it on my blog somewhere. It was very quirky. I hope you enjoy Mr Penumbra.

  9. October 13, 2012 6:35 pm

    Thank-you for concise book summary and recommendation. I live in city with fewer and fewer book stores, missing rainy days (like today in YVR) when we would go on book crawls and frequent stop for coffee chats. I add this book to reading list.

    • October 13, 2012 10:56 pm

      I’m glad to hear it. Yes, bookshops in Australia are also becoming few and far between, unfortunately. But it’s good to know that there’s seems to be no shortage of people who love reading books and talking about them :)

  10. October 13, 2012 9:33 pm

    Thanks for this post!

  11. October 13, 2012 9:44 pm

    This is great. I will have to social bookmark this so more people can read it. THanks a lot

  12. October 14, 2012 12:36 am

    This has been on my to-read list for a bit and cannot wait to get a copy! Great post and congrats on the FP :D

  13. October 14, 2012 3:31 am

    Some real collision right there!

  14. October 14, 2012 5:31 am

    You have piqued my curiosity.

  15. October 14, 2012 1:22 pm

    Sounds like a great read. Thank you for the review!

  16. October 14, 2012 7:32 pm

    Definitely going to read this one. Very well written critique. I can see why it got “pressed.”

  17. October 14, 2012 8:21 pm

    I am excited about reading the book now…. you did put ur heart into writing this, it feels …great post :)

  18. October 15, 2012 1:40 am

    I’ve been wondering about this book ever. Now I think it’s turned from “hmmm” into “must by.”

  19. October 15, 2012 2:52 am

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll check it out!

  20. October 18, 2012 6:12 pm

    Seems like my kinda book. I can browse around in a bookstore forever. Great post :)

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