I was drawn to Robin Sloan’s new novel, in part because the amazing bookstore setting of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly the place I can spend
hours days the rest of my life. A narrow shop in San Francisco, with shelves that reach impossibly high above, it’s filled with a combination of recognizable popular books and strange, mysterious texts. It’s a puzzle, where certain patrons borrow those more obscure texts, attempting to crack the code inside. Clay Jannon, a newly unemployed former dot com employee has taken a position as a bookseller here-a move that leads him into a fantastic adventure.
I mentioned earlier that Clay’s journey struck a chord with me, in part because it’s trajectory was opposite to mine. I went from a career as both a bookseller and librarian to my current career working for a web based startup. I kept finding I identified with Clay in many other ways, including what becomes a running theme of this book, the nexus between physical books and eBooks. He favors a Kindle, while I read this on an iPad, but that’s a minor distinction. The book ruminates regularly on that shaded area in the Venn diagram comparison of the physical and the virtual. Clay’s roommate Mat creates special effects for ILM, specifically tangible models as opposed to computer generated. Meanwhile Clay’s love interest, Kat, is a programmer for Google with a passion for data visualization.
What sold me entirely on this book though, was an exchange between Mat and Clay including this line:
“Mat nods gravely. ‘The serifs are pointy indeed.'”
I laughed out loud at that line. Rarely is typeset important to a story, but for Mat and Clay to complete what they’re working on, typeset becomes important. This is a book by someone who adores books, in the same way Ernest Cline loves Eighties references and Rob Reid loves music. This is a nerdish book about the love of books as objects, sources of information, and catalysts for connection. Cleverly plotted, witty, and paced at a quick clip, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a joyful experience to read, whether in physical form or via an app. And, as someone formerly in retail, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the holidays are coming, should you be looking for a gift for your bookish friends, or yourself.