Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan


Computers can sort vast amounts of data into a specified order far faster and more efficiently than any human ever could, but they can’t take the next leap into understanding what that order means…and they’re incapable of sorting the data without a program. A program which is designed by a human and entered into the computer by a human.

I hope.

As Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore begins, our protagonist, Clay Jannon, has begun working at a very odd bookstore–as the title suggests, the business is named “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore”. It’s a very odd store. For one thing, it really is open (physically) twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. For another, its primary business doesn’t actually seem to be selling the sort of book that one usually finds in a modern bookstore. Oh, it has a few paltry shelves of recent books up at the front of the store, but rather the bulk of the activity comes from a smattering of obscurely eccentric bibliophiles who come in to borrow the impossibly obscure old tomes which form the bulk of the store’s collection. He must note down in a ledger what each of these bibliophiles does, how they appear, how they behave, and so on.

After a few weeks of idling through the quiet night shifts, Clay becomes curious as to the real purpose of these customers and this business; surely it can’t be taking in enough money to pay the rent on a storefront in San Francisco, much less purchase new stock and pay two clerks? He “borrows” one of the old ledgers chronicling the mysterious book borrowers’ visits and has his techie friends scan it, page by page, and decode the text within using the high-speed capacity of Google’s main-frames. The constellation of data points creates…a face.

When Clay brings this up to Mr. Penumbra the next day1, Mr. Penumbra becomes excited that Clay has figured out in a day what takes novices years to decipher, but does not explain further…and indeed, when Clay comes to work the next day, he discovers that the bookstore is closed and Mr. Penumbra gone. A customer reveals the true nature of his “bookstore”: it serves as the San Francisco research center for a bibliophile group, the fellowship of the Unbroken Spine. The other bookstore clerk figures out that Mr. Penumbra has taken the train1 to the New York headquarters of this cult…

…and the race is on: to discover the real purpose of this cryptic cult, to prevent the nefarious plotting of the power-hungry head of the cult, to decipher the centuries-old riddles contained within the tomes using the newest technology of computing power, to go on a quest for the originals of the Gerritzoon typeface, and so on to a more or less happy ending.

There’s a huge amount of fantasy here, both obvious and a bit subtler–no real-world bookstore’s going to stay open 24/7 on only three employees, even with so little traffic as this one obviously gets…but then this isn’t a real bookstore. Or rather, selling books isn’t the point of the operation. It’s a fun read and a fast one, but not a terribly deep one, just well-detailed. Overall, I’d call this a great read for advanced teenagers, who’ve not quite grasped why us old fuddy-duddies still like those musty old bound books–so twentieth-century!

What to read next? For the first time in a LONG while, I’ve got several suggestions. For those who love fast-reading adventure books about conspiracy theories, try Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. For those who love books but found this too flippant, try Umberto Eco or Jorge Luis Borges. For those who couldn’t pinpoint any particular plot point as a favorite but like the general tone of the novel and the main character, (don’t laugh!) try Ready Player One

New York Times
NPR

1he having already realized that Clay had borrowed the ledger, as he smelled the coffee used to artificially age the fakeout replacement
1what else would an elderly bibliophile do?

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