Scholars Vs. Geeks in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Hardbound edition comes with wrap-around glow-in-the-dark dust jacket!

Hardbound edition comes with wrap-around glow-in-the-dark dust jacket!

Set in the tech-hub of California, San Francisco, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) by Robin Sloan is a fun, quirky, novel which merges today’s internet and Google-reliant world with the ancient world of manuscripts and printing presses in an unlikely fairy-tale pitting computer geeks against book scholars.

When Graphic Arts graduate Clay loses his job as the IT manager of a bagel store, he did what most of us would do – spend his days on the internet – looking at job listings, watching videos, reading e-book introductory chapters, sending e-mails, etc. One day while spending some time outdoors, away from his laptop, he encounters a store with a Help Wanted sign on the window and walks in.  He later gets hired as a night clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.

Clay Jannon confesses at the beginning of the novel that before working at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, he had hardly read, let alone held, real books.  Growing up, he was obsessed with the fantasy epic, The Dragon-Song Chronicles, which has instilled in him a love for fantasy and adventure.  Despite this, he belongs to the present tech-savvy generation armed with smart phones and laptops.

At first, Clay is content with his dull job despite his mysterious employer, Mr. Penumbra’s warning to never open the books borrowed by the strange customers – books arranged in the back shelves rising 3 storeys high.  After a while curiosity (or rather, a friend’s curiosity) gets the better of him and he soon learns that the hundreds of books he watches over are not ordinary books.  Upon closer inspection, he discovers that the books are all written in a kind of code.

To entertain himself during the late-night hours, Clay decides to build a 3-D model of the bookstore on his computer and to plot the books the customers’ borrowed over a period of time. With the help of brilliant friends from Industrial Light and Magic, and Google, he observes that each bookstore client is working his/her way through particular books in search of something. However, the client-book pattern that emerges in his model is both bizarre and remarkable. When he presents his discovery to Mr. Penumbra, Mr. Penumbra is delighted yet dismayed that even without understanding what he has done, Clay, with the use of technology, managed to solve in a day what the bookstore clients have spent most of their lives trying to solve.

Clay later learns the real secret behind the strange books and customers of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – they are all members of a 500-year-old secret society, whose founder left behind a coded book which may hold the secrets to immortality.  With the support of Mr. Penumbra, Clay and his friends cook-up a harebrained scheme to use the internet (Google) to decode the Founder’s book – hoping that technology could unlock instantly what hundreds of scholars over hundreds of years have not been able to do.

24-Hour Bookstore illustrates the different ways technology has affected people’s lives. People go online not just for entertainment or for doing mundane tasks, but in the professional and academic realm as well.  With the way things are going these days, with people relying more and more on electronic gadgets and the internet to solve life’s problems and do their thinking for them, it’s no wonder non-digital things such as “real” books are on the decline.  The internet has made our lives easier, but has it also made us lazier and robbed us of imagination and the ability for critical thinking?

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a modern-day adventure-quest to seek knowledge and truth, complete with rogue, wizard, and warrior. But despite Clay’s participation in the ordeal, he remains cynical throughout, as to be expected from a member of a generation trained by the internet to be distrustful of non-verifiable sources, to identify trolls, spam, photo-shopped images, and other internet forgeries.

24-Hour Bookstore is an optimistic fiction that teaches us that technology does not hold the answer to everything, nor do ancient manuscripts pored over by scholars.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore suggests that the only way esoteric scholars armed with ancient mysteries and manuscripts can co-exist tech-savvy geeks in the internet-driven society is not by trying to ignore each other, but by working together to find a harmonious middle ground.

I enjoyed this novel, partly because I could relate to both sides of the issue presented – Clay’s obsession with the internet and reliance on Google, and to Mr. Penumbra’s love for books and reading.  I was fortunate enough to have been born before the internet. I am old enough to have remembered the “good-old days” of writing and mailing letters with stamps, of going to libraries to borrow books or to research term papers by hunting books one by one; when one had to use a calculator (or math skills) to get percentages or convert Celsius to Fahrenheit, and when one actually needed to know how to spell.  Yet I’m also young enough to have been able to understand, adapt to and make good use of the internet – to appreciate the  convenience of e-mail, embrace, then shun social networking sites, like Friendster, Mulitiply, and Facebook, and be grateful for Google, which is able to tell me, with no effort at all what 29% of 350 is.

I agree with Mr. Penubra’s view that technology need not phase out the non-digital things you love doing like reading books.  On the contrary, technology and the internet can even enhance your hobbies and make them more enjoyable.  I’d say that reading real books then blogging about them online for the world to read are prefect examples of that.


Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (2012) – Robin Sloan

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; 304 pages

Personal rating:  3/5

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