Book review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore - [re]kindle the magic

Robin Sloan tackles the tug-of-war between technology and books with immense warmth and intelligence.

Anam Haq November 10, 2013
Robin Sloan tackles the tug-of-war between technology and books with immense warmth and intelligence.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore flourishes in the nebulous terrain between super-powered digital information and the text warriors of yore. It rocks in terms of crazy imaginative leaps and is so optimistic about the longevity of books in print that it makes bibliophiles like me positively clap with glee. It does have its share of shortcomings though, but more on that later.

Clay Jannon is an unemployed art school graduate. One day, Clay’s life changes completely when he walks into a shabby little bookshop with a vacancy. He is greeted by the mysterious and seriously old Mr Penumbra who asks, “What do you seek in these shelves?” Clay soon begins work at Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore and realises that what is ostensibly a decrepit bookshop, with very few readable books and even fewer customers, is actually a vault for thousands of books written in code, held for customers who borrow them at alarming regularity and even more alarming haste. His job is to write minute descriptions of each customer — down to the last triangle-shaped button and fifth sneeze.

The books in code, as Clay discovers, lead towards the discovery of the holy grail of a secret society called the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine, the headquarters of which lie beneath Manhattan’s busiest district, a five hundred-year-old underground lair with ancient tomes and robed, hooded whispering figures. In a modern, heroic quest, investigator Clay together with his Googler-wizard girlfriend, Kat, and his best friend, warrior/financer Nee, unravel the centuries-old mystery of the relationship between books and immortality.

Despite all the trappings to go over the top, the book is quite grounded. One of the reasons, ironically, is the author’s imagination. Undeniably, we have here a writer who is able to channel an old-world love for books in all their glory while refusing to entertain the scorn of proud Kindle wielders or Google users. He co-opts the enemy, as it were, and makes Google the torchbearer of a movement to digitise all knowledge — bringing the written and spoken word into the realm of digital information and codes, and making it available to all. Google is a world conqueror and its headquarters is a sprawling campus with a controlled environment resembling the robot-like air from the Stepford Wives, but with happy, bouncy, under-30 army of employees who represent the best of the human species world over. It is Darwinian but with Katy Perry and her California girls in charge of the selections.

Then there is Google Forever, the division pondering questions of extended life and immortality, because as Kat agonises, there is so much to do and such a limited window of opportunity for humans. Google Forever is hence a reality — Google launches Calico, a company dealing with medicine and biotechnology with the goal of extending the human lifespan. Sloan is spot on with imaginative invention that is crazy enough to be real.

In a world where bibliophiles would rather preserve books for a scarce few and where digitisation of books is done carelessly to mass produce, Sloan pays due respect to the great tradition of reading books. This, complete with the accompanying milieu — bookstores, eccentric but lovable booksellers, the charm of an old book with thumbed, yellowed pages, the thrill of a brand new book with crackling covers and the smell of brand new secrets — is an absolute joy to experience. However, there is also a sincere appeal to allow universal access to the written word. Sloan shows that machines can be good and the spider-handed Google book scanner loves books and takes great care to preserve the delicate pages and spine. Appropriate technology can help traditional methods of information and knowledge progress in a way that is fitting for the fast pace of the modern reader.

There are however some shortcomings; one is that the book is too clever for its own good. The mysteries presented are gripping. What do the code books in Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour bookstore mean? Clay finds the answer easily via a data visualisation project. Why does Mr Penumbra disappear halfway into the book? A bit of old fashioned sleuthing in Mr Penumbra’s office, a lot of Google Mapping and boom, Clay reaches Mr Penumbra’s destination even before he does. What is the final answer to the puzzles contained in the Fellowship of the Unbroken Spine? Google runs an extensive operation to find out but fails and then Clay, within days, trots out the answer. It’s all too easy and not good enough given that the writer is playing with an extended metaphor of the quest. It’s like Odysseus found Google Maps, a fancy yacht with a tech-savvy crew, and went from Troy to Ithaca in two days and gave a thumbs-up to the audience watching him via satellites.

In the same vein, there are some parts which could have been trimmed; the love story between Clay and Kat is underdeveloped, in fact his bromance with Neel is much more engaging. There is unnecessary text devoted to expounding the details of Google the Gargantuan Conqueror; much of that could have been part of a larger picture as opposed to the picture.

Having knocked it down a few notches, I still hold the book a winner. It is great writing, fast paced for the most part, with seriously exciting moments. And the best part, it puts a big smile on your face and makes a part of you want to go back to that quest and find the magical world that you closed off in your mind long ago.

Book bonanza 

Where'd You Go Bernadette?

Bernadette Fox is notorious: to her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect; and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward for a family trip to Antarctica. To find her mother, Bee creates a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

It is 1946 and the author, Juliet Ashton, can't think of what to write next. Out of the blue, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams of Guernsey who has acquired a book that once belonged to her. And spurred on by their mutual love of reading, they begin a correspondence. When Dawsey reveals that he is a member of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, her curiosity is piqued and it's not long before she begins to hear from other members. As letters fly back and forth with stories of life in Guernsey under the German Occupation, Juliet soon realises that the society is every bit as extraordinary as its name.

Alif the Unseen

He calls himself Alif — few people know his real name — a young man born in a Middle Eastern city that straddles the ancient and modern worlds. When Alif meets the aristocratic Intisar, he believes he has found love. But their relationship has no future and as a remembrance, Intisar sends the heartbroken Alif a mysterious book. Entitled The Thousand and One Days, Alif discovers that this parting gift is a door to another world — a world from a very different time, when old magic was in the ascendant and the djinn walked among us.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 10th, 2013.

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