Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

mr penumbraMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore lives up to its name: it is run by Mr Penumbra, it is open 24-hours, and it does sell some books… But Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is also much more than the name on its front window, in unassuming yellow Gerritszoon font, suggests. New employee Clay Jannon quickly discovers that there is much more to this bookstore than first meets the eye.

Penumbra himself is a kindly old gent, if somewhat eccentric and puzzling, but his bookstore is almost everything but an ordinary bookstore. At the front of the store is a minimal selection of books for sale. The real business of this bookstore, however, lies in the ‘Wayback List’ – shelves which stretch all the way to a very high ceiling, and right to the back of the store. Rolling stack ladders (you know, the ones that appear in Libraries that Dreams Are Made Of) help clerks climb to fetch weird and wonderful books for Penumbra’s strange patrons. These books operate on a library system, and their readers never say much about what they’re reading. Clay – despite being warned to never open these books – has his curiosity roused when he takes a peek. Cracking into one of these books starts his journey to solve the puzzle which starts in Penumbra’s shelves filled with encoded books, and stretches right around the world, and as far back as the Fifteenth Century.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was published earlier this year, and is the first work of novel-length from digital jack-of-all-trades, Robin Sloan. Starting as a 6000-word digital-only short story, Penumbra might be seen as one of the more imaginative works lately to have started life in a digital form.

The premise of the book is quite literary – in the opening chapters all I could think of was Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, with Penumbra’s seemingly infinite shelves of infinite books. The encoded books at first struck me as perhaps a take on Borges’ books, which contain every permutation possible from our own alphabet, and every other existing alphabet, and alphabets that don’t event exist in our world. The chance of finding sense in these books is what keeps men reading… Sloan’s bookstore in Penumbra at first led me along thinking that perhaps he’d used the same premise as the basis for his own story. As I started reading, I took note after note of how I was reminded of Borges’ Babel. “p.37 – “many have devoted their lives to it -> Borges again”. “p.29 – description of what’s inside books sounds just like Borges’ infinite library books”.

From this unshakable similarity (in my mind, at least) came my main issue with Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I came into the book unsure of what kind of basis I was judging this work on: so much of the opening of the book reminded me so heavily of Borges that I was ready to judge on these terms – highly literary, postmodern and tricksy. I soon realized, though, that this wasn’t what Sloan was doing, and found myself shifting my expectations. The premise of this book is literary insofar as it’s based in a bookshop, and it considers the interplay of on-the-page text and digitization… That’s about it. The premise is literary, but the writing is not. Once I’d found this stable ground, I was in for quite a ride. Of course, this qualm isn’t anything to do with Sloan – it’s my own baggage that I bring into the text, and it was something quickly overcome when I figured out where I was with the book.

What ensued then was some strange cross between the glorious pacing of The Da Vinci Code (Brown’s is an awful book, but has very moreish pacing) and the bookish revelry of Jasper Fforde or Richard Braughtigan. The pacing is rewarding, and makes you want to keep reading. Short chapters cause that “just one more…” problem, meaning you tear through the book in two or three days, sleepless and hungry. Things fit together in the way of detective fiction, where happy coincidences flagged at the beginning of the novel line up cleanly by the end, and around every corner is an answer.

Overall, this book is funny, fast, and a great fun romp. It’s not exactly challenging, but does contain a huge amount of commentary on the interplay between hard-copy and digital texts, a part of the book which has had plenty of discussion in other reviews. Sloan’s conjecture seems to be that both hard-copy and digital hold their areas of expertise and charm, and that neither necessarily needs to put the other out of business in order to be successful or appreciated fully.

Lighter than I expected, but no less awesome for it. Do give it a go!

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43 Responses to Review: Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

  1. Sue Ghosh says:

    Fantastic review!

  2. Kris F says:

    Thanks for the suggestion of this book. I’m eager to read of the cross over between digital and hard copy. Congrats on FP!

  3. I think I enjoyed your review as much as I enjoyed the book. Well said!

  4. Penumbra is one of my favourite words; I’m glad its profile has been raised by this book! A rollercoaster ride of a review. Great stuff!

  5. I’m wondering why the people at wordpress are so…interested in this book. I’d never heard of the book until I came across another Freshly Pressed post some weeks (months?) ago that had reviewed it. I bought it based on the review and was definitely pleased with my purchase. I’m curious though about the fact that there have been 2 FP posts about the same book in just a few weeks. Perhaps they were FP’d by different wordpress people who didn’t realize there’d been a FP post on the book before? Regardless, I’m happy other people will now discover this book the same way I did. :)

    • I hadn’t noticed – I’ll have to track down the other review and see if we say similar things.
      The WordPress lady said to me that she liked it because it reminded her how much she wanted to read the book… So it could have been someone different, or maybe this particular lady just needs lots of reminders?

  6. I read this post an ran (much like a child at the sight of candy) to an ordinary Kinokunya that was not run by an elderly gentleman with an awesome name. However, I did find a copy of this book! Go me.

  7. Jeff says:

    Sounds very interesting. I love Fforde’s books, so I will look for this one. And congratulations on being “Freshly Pressed!”

  8. segmation says:

    Good luck to Robin Sloan on this book and I look forward to seeing how her book works out for her. How about you?

  9. shanbanana says:

    I’m in the market for a new book, maybe I’ll pick up this one. Thanks for the recommendation and great review!

  10. Lila says:

    I hate reading badly written books. I only read the “look inside” version of this book on (I’m laughing at myself for calling that a version). It read so much better than other books in the market and I wondered why no one is talking about it already. The writing was clean. Before I could buy it or memorize the name, I ended up being pulled out of my little Penumbra fantasy and losing the whole book and going back to life. Still, I found myself remembering the story from time to time without recalling the name. When I saw the title of this post, I recalled the book immediately. I’m happy to see that those who have read it cover to cover enjoyed it just as much as I’ve enjoyed the first chapter. Maybe it will be that good. Will have to read it in its entirety soon.

    Thank you so much for the reminder.

  11. awayfarday says:

    Reblogged this on awayfarday.

  12. very well said littlegirlwithabigpen :) you’ve sold me for this one.., i’m heading to my nearest bookstore to check this out and will surely get back here when i finished reading :) keep the good reviews up..,


  13. Reblogged this on nobeebernal and commented:
    i wanna visit this bookstore >3<
    i wanna visit this so much that it hurts :|

  14. aapatawaran says:

    I’m intrigued!

  15. Masud says:

    Reblogged this on vizualbusinessbd.

  16. Jaggi says:

    Reblogged this on Jaggi.

  17. Pingback: Literary Adventures Reach New Heights in “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” « The JK Review

  18. Soul Walker says:

    I may just have to put it on the list.

  19. I really liked this book and I think that this summed it up quite nicely! Definitely an easy read.

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