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

If Douglas Coupland had written The DaVinci Code . . . Well, let's just say this book inhabits that intersection of literature.

Without giving too much away, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is the story of Clay, a graphics designer who has fallen victim to the economic downturn and so takes up post as nightly clerk of the mysterious titular store. Never mind that books are "old technology;" in this store there is a private lending library of coded books open only to special members . . . And of course it wouldn't be much of a book itself if Penumbra's didn't send Clay down that rabbit hole, readers in tow.

It's Clay's tone as narrator that brings to mind Coupland; he's extremely accessible and likable, a reasonable young man surrounded by, if not unreasonable, then definitely unusual people and circumstances. But like the hero of his favorite childhood fantasy novel, Clay rises to the challenge. He infiltrates several cults (one of them being Google) and forges strange alliances (easy to do when you're accessible and likable).

Sloan juxtaposes a lot of old and new, past and future: printed books versus e-readers is the handiest example. And he contrasts the various points of view on the matter, too: those entrenched in the old ways of doing things, customs and traditions, against people so forward-thinking they can't even see the present. The bottom line seems to be the nature of immortality, if there is such a thing. I'd say that anyone with a relationship to books (writers, readers) has an understanding of what it means to live forever, but there is always the question of whether the books themselves will last . . . Even Hitler knew the power of the printed word enough to use it to his purpose and feared it enough to burn what contradicted his will, but if and when everything becomes a byte instead of a book . . . It will be simultaneously much easier to simply delete something and much harder to be certain you've scrubbed away every existing copy (bytes of data are like cockroaches, seriously). I'd say we at least still require libraries for backup, just in case technology fails us. And we require technology for backup, just in case we come against another Hitler. There's space—and need—for both in the world.

But that's something else again. Though if anything, my digression points to the ways Penumbra's can bring up interesting points for discussion. Can the model-maker from ILM and the computer graphics programmer work together in harmony? Or will it always be a fight over who does what better and who is more skilled, more necessary than the other? (Really, though, in the book they get along fine.)

I'd recommend this book, a fast and quirky read with a wide potential audience. Even YA, or maybe that "New Adult" demographic, could enjoy this. Although people over a certain age might find their eyes glazing over when all the Google spew and talk of the singularity happens. As someone who falls into that little gap of having had a childhood unshadowed by constant computing but an adulthood wherein the constant access to info has become both burden and convenience, I like to think my ability to straddle both sides of the story allows me to get the most out of it. (For one, while I do use my computer and smartphone as much as anyone, I am relatively sure I could live without them if the need were to arise. Because I've done it before, so I know how.)

Finally, Penumbra's poses the question of cultishness. I suppose any time two or more people get together and formulate a set of rules by which they plan to live and work . . . Or maybe even the unspoken agreement of large swaths of society . . . Well, but I think what makes a cult a cult is the singular devotion and enthusiasm of its adherents. Not every book club is a cult, but some . . . Some people take their books very seriously. Read Penumbra's and you'll see what I mean.

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