Semi-major announcement: I offered to volunteer at the local library bookstore. 🙂 I have a meeting set up, and if all goes well I will be volunteering there soon enough! So it only seemed fitting that I pick up Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a book that I have owned for sometime now, and just get on with it!
The story is narrated by its main protagonist, Clay Jannon; a young web designer in San Francisco who lost his job during the economic downturn. One day he stumbles upon Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore with a ‘HELP WANTED’ sign hanging out in front, and despite his reservations that “24-hour bookstore” is euphemism for something else, can not help it but go in. Once in, Clay is mesmerized by the bookstore’s tall bookshelves full of books (minus erotica, so perhaps this is a legitimate business after all!) and before he knows it, his mouth has taken matters to hand and is asking for a job from Mr. Penumbra! But at first it seems like everything turns out alright, as Clay gets hired on the spot to do the graveyard shift after he tells Mr. Penumbra about the book he loves most. Although his pay is nothing to brag about, it pays enough to cover his rent and buy pizza, and what more can he ask for in a tough economy where his friends are dropping like flies out of jobs. However, after a while he realizes Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is not your ordinary bookshop. For starters, it rarely gets any customers, and its regulars (if you can call them that), come there to borrow books from what Clay calls the ‘waybacklist’; books that have never been published anywhere in the world. And here is the catch: terms of Clay’s employment prohibits him from inspecting these distinctive volumes.
This adventure book full of fantasy and mystery elements, has many things book lovers would appreciate. For example, can you imagine how cool a 24-hour bookstore would be? I will probably want my house next to it! Quite possibly the entire bookstore inventory will end up at my home, and I might also have to rob a bank, but it still feels good to daydream. 🙂
And then there are bookish bits. Did you know Aldus Manutius is one of the early printers/ publishers in history of books? He is credited for introducing books in small formats; what we know as modern pocket books nowadays. Alongside Manutius, there is Griffo Gerritszoon (Francesco Griffo in actual history, who designed the italic type), who are at the core of the mystery of this book.
I really liked Clay Jannon’s narration in the book. He is funny and witty! But the secondary characters Robin Sloan has created are as much as interesting as the main ones. Among them, my favorite is Daphne, a stripper from the bookstore’s next door establishment; ‘Booty’s’ that has “a sign with neon legs that cross and uncross”. She is one of the rare but ordinary visitors of the bookstore who is a fan of biographies. And she comes looking for Walter Isaacson’s books; whose biography of Steve Jobs I loved! That book did not make me like Steve Jobs, but I had always deemed biographies to be boring up until I read Walter Isaacson.
Robin Sloan’s book has a considerable amount of technology in it. I have a computing background, so I am somewhat familiar with C, Ruby, Hadoop and the rest of it. But for readers who are unfamiliar with the jargon, Robin Sloan does a pretty good job in explaining them in simple ways, with a flair of mastery. Below is one such instance…
… But Ruby, my language of choice since NewBagel, was invented by a cheerful Japanese programmer, and it reads like friendly, accessible poetry. Billy Collins by way of Bill Gates.
But, of course, the point of a programming language is that you don’t just read it; you write it, too. You make it do things for you. And this, I think, is where Ruby shines:
Imagine that you’re cooking. But instead of following the recipe step-by-step and hoping for the best, you can actually take ingredients in and out of the pot whenever you want. You can add salt, taste it, shake your head, and pull the salt back out. You can take a perfectly crisp crust, isolate it, and then add whatever you want to the inside. It’s no longer just a linear process ending in success or (mostly, for me) frustrating failure. Instead, it’s a loop or a curlicue or a little scribble. It’s play.
All in all, I had a good time reading Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Is it my favorite read of the year? Definitely not. However, in my opinion, for a debut, Robin Sloan has fared far better than Paula Hawkins did with The Girl on the Train. And I wish someday soon someone will make Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in to a movie.