Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

It wouldn't take a genius to be able to peg my reading interests, even when I feel like I am going off script. Secret society, conspiracy, code breaking, computers and technology. All of these things would generally leave me cold. But take them and set the story in a bookstore. Oh boy! When can I read it? Can I read it now? I held out longer than usual with Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore but eventually the bookstore angle pulled me in (and I convinced my book club to read it so I would definitely get to it). And I am so glad it did because despite the tech angle to it, there is a reverence for old fashioned books and their continuing place in our world that is simply enchanting.

Clay Jannon lost his job when the San Francisco bagel company for whom he did marketing and web design went under. He had no idea that his next job would be so very different than what he was used to but on his ramblings through the city, he stumbled on a tall, narrow bookstore whose window had a Help Wanted sign in it. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore was nothing like any bookstore Clay had ever experienced before and he was fairly certain that it was a front for something else. After all, it sold almost no books, ever. Even adjusting for the fact that Clay staffed the store overnight, they sold next to nothing. And then there were the strange older people who came in and borrowed books from the store. Borrowed, not bought. And the books themselves were strange; aside from a few shelves at the front of the store with regular books, the books for borrow were unreadable. Without much to occupy himself, Clay decides to try and see if he can uncover the mystery of the books and the people who are slowly working their way through them. He uses his computer and modeling programs and what he and his friends uncover is just the beginning.

The beauty of this story is that it isn't really all that far fetched. It's not fantasy or set in a future world. It is now and it acknowledges and celebrates the interconnectedness of the long enduring technologies of the past and the rapidly changing technologies of right now. It is a paean to the possibilities of the future and the vast reaches to which our own human imaginations can push the machines we have but without declaring the premature death of the things that have given us joy and information for centuries. And in the end, the novel holds up human genius as the ultimate thing. Like Kat, the enthusiastic Google employee, we project into the future carried along by our passions to discover and to invent but we not only pay homage to the past, we integrate it into our future, cherishing it, if only for the pleasure it brings. We are indeed a very online world anymore but that is not all we are and as this book suggests, there's much benefit to disconnecting and to seeing technology as only one tool among many in our happy lives. Immortality, however you define it, may be the end goal for each individual person, but there are many, many valid permutations of it and even more ways to find it.

Reading this novel is easy and smooth. There are some awfully convenient bits and an unbelievable scene or two but over all, this is well done without the need for pyrotechnics or outlandish situations. It is very much a book of our time right now and might come to feel dated but in this very immediacy, it captures beautifully the dichotomy of old knowledge (books) and new knowledge(computers) at a historically significant crossroads. Will the new overtake and snuff out the old? Or will they be able to coexist, and even if we don't have Google or certain computer programs or apps ten years from now, we will still look back to these years as those that determined the course of our path to knowledge and human ingenuity, making the story more timeless than its pop culture references might suggest. The mystery of the purpose of the bookstore and the unveiling of the final answer drives the story, pleasantly sweeping the reader through its pages. If a tale so heavily dependent on technology can capture me, an avowed Luddite, it should appeal to anyone who loves and cherishes books. And the final, lovely line of the book is sure to resonate with all readers everywhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts