Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is about a scholarly secret society. It celebrates passion for nerdy subjects like typography, computer programming, pre-13th century world history, online alternatives to commercial software, and old books. Especially books. It's told in the voice of Clay Jannon, the night clerk in a very unusual bookstore in San Francisco. When Clay is hired, Mr. Penumbra warns him to never look inside the books in the shop. "You may not browse, read, or otherwise inspect the shelved volumes. Retrieve them for members. That is all."

Was Clay able to stick by that injunction? Of course not. The books contain clues to an ancient puzzle. That's where the adventure begins.

I loved the way this book led me off onto tangents. For example, when a protagonist "produces another e-reader -- it's a Nook. Then another one, a Sony. Another one, marked KOBO. Really? Who has a Kobo?" (Answer: Canadians. I see patrons with Kobo e-readers in my library all the time.)

Clay's clandestine activities involve "a pair of white Stormtrooper binoculars" at one point, which reminded me of a great vlog post by author John Green, where he talks about book editors and whether stormtroopers is one word or two (and many other things), and I had to go find it again here. Come to think of it, Clay bonded with his friend Neel over a fantasy novel that they read as kids in much the same way as Green's protagonists in The Fault in our Stars.

Even though I was going off onto side roads, I never found these detracted from the main journey. It's all a brain game, really. Also, Sloan's humour hit the right notes for me, like naming a bibliophile 'Mr. Deckle.' Clay's girlfriend Kat gushes about her employer's (Google) projects:

"They are making a 3-D web bowser. They are making a car that drives itself. They are making a sushi search engine -- here she pokes a chopstick down at our dinner -- to help people find fish that is sustainable and mercury-free. They are building a time machine. They are developing a form of renewable energy that runs on hubris."

Clay's description of his first experience with audiobooks got me thinking about why I love them so much:

"I've never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say, it's a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes."

Yes, that is how it is for me. Sound adds a visceral element to books also; a gut sensation. I nearly missed my bus stop yesterday because I was so absorbed by Amanda Plummer's audiobook narration of Wildwood by Colin Meloy. (My literal knit cap did not cover my eyes, but it was about 15 below, and I put my headphones on top of my hat. Then my hood.)

I leave you with Sloan's final paragraph (and don't worry, it isn't a spoiler):

"A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time."

That special book is Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

Readalikes with underdog nerds banding together to problem-solve at the intersection of old and new technologies: Ready Player One (Ernest Cline); For the Win (Cory Doctorow).

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