book review: mr. penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore

There are a great many things to love about Robin Sloan’s novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. A great many things. What I love best about it is how perfectly “now” it feels. It’s a book I will use to say “this is how 2012 felt to me.”

The narrator of the tale is a designer who can’t get work because of the economy, and takes a job as the night clerk in a 24-hour bookstore. It’s a weird bookstore though, with three storeys of tomes (and to the delight of library-nerds rolling ladders for access) in the back which are arranged in no clear order and have eccentric people coming to trade for them. And these eccentric folk must be kept track of and observed, written about in the log for each shift. So yes, there is the old and odd to this story.

And then a woman who works at Google walks in (the bookstore is in San Francisco) and the story becomes this beautiful melding of all that old weird stuff with data-visualization schemes and parallel processing power to break codes and dreams of the Singularity. Plus of course the digitization of books.

Put it together with a fantasy novel overlay, that has our narrator using the D&D character name of his best friend since they were 12 when he needs him to really do something and I’m in heaven.

It’s about the intersection of these worlds of tradition and innovation, design and shortcuts that make it amazing. If you liked Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, there are echoes here, but it’s mostly in the shared nerd culture aspects. It’s a much less heavy tale. The narrator doesn’t take all the robes and mumbo-jumbo or the Googlarchy so seriously as anyone in The Magicians would. It’s more like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

It was a quick read. It didn’t change the way I thought about the deep mysteries of life. But it was so damned enjoyable.

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