Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
By Robin Sloan
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Besides its bouncy title and glow-in-the-dark jacket, this novel has one other curiosity working in its favor: it reveres books as much as it does technology. The two work in tandem, in fact, to tell a mystery about a secret society of readers (yes, readers!) working together to decode ancient texts that will, in theory, unearth the answer to life’s perennial quest: immortality. But Dan Brown fans need not bother—it’s not that kind of book. Debut author Robin Sloan (a former full-timer for Poynter, Current TV and Twitter) expertly calibrates the old and the new to create an amiable, absurdist fable that pulls off the neat trick of feeling both timeless and timely.
Clay Jannon, an out-of-work digital marketer, gets a job in a bookstore run by a very old, very odd man, Mr. Penumbra. The bookstore, tucked away in a sparsely-visited nook of San Francisco, is open, for no discernible reason, all day. As the evening clerk, Clay is visited only rarely, by clientele of a specific sort: stern, nervous types, usually old, all there to borrow massive, dusty books (the “Waybacklist,” he calls it) that have encrypted code inside in place of words. Eventually—and with help from a parade of sidekicks including his wealthy best friend, artsy roommate, and techie girlfriend—Clay discovers Mr. Penumbra and his clients (clients, not customers) are all members of an underground society (or, perhaps more accurately, cult) whose presence stretches across the country and, perhaps, the world.
While the central mystery loses momentum as it unfolds, there’s real poignancy in the shared journey of each character, young and old. All are searching for a way to live forever, but the answer is much more interesting than the discovery of a fountain of youth—because, as Clay discovers, it’s ideas that last, not people. And as long as ideas last, so will books. Plus, as Clay puts it, “people like the smell of them,” so books have that working in their favor, too.