Hi world, I just finished book #31 of 2015, and I am so happy because it was perfect. Like, this might be in my list of top 10 all-time favorites, which is saying something because it’s hard for me to even narrow down the other 9 spots on that list. I read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan’s first novel.
I’m not kidding when I say that everything nerdy is covered in this novel, including but not limited to: books, coding, typography, a lot more coding, secret societies, a quest for immortality, hidden libraries, historical artifacts and clues hidden in plain site, and Google employees.
But seriously, I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. It was light and easy to read for the most part, and that was part of what made it so cool. (I hope, in the course of this blog post, I am able to clearly articulate that thought, because everyone needs to read this book.)
The story begins with unemployed, job-seeking, former graphic designer, Clay Jannon. He’s internet-savvy and great at very specifically targeted marketing campaigns, but otherwise kind of aimless, drifting around San Francisco. He stumbles upon a tall, narrow building with a “now hiring” sign in the window, called Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. So he goes in, asks for a job, and becomes the overnight desk clerk.
He starts noticing a small bunch of strange visitors who come in (in various states of minds) looking for specific books located in the dark, shadowy section that Clay calls “the Waybacklist.” One thing leads to another, and Clay figures out that all of these Waybacklist books are comprised of complicated code (naturally.)
Drawing on all of his resources, which mostly include a successful start-up friend from back in 6th grade, a new love interest who works at Google, and a special-effects savant of a roommate. They set to work solving the strange riddle of the bookstore that signs his paychecks.
Ultimately, this quest brings them to the answer: a secret society dating back centuries called the Unbroken Spine (what a great secret society name, right?). There are a lot of awesome twists and turns from there, and the book concludes with one of my all-time-favorite-epilogues-slash-last-pages. Seriously, it’s worth a read either way, but it’s especially worth a read for the last page of the epilogue. That’s a great last page.
As with all centuries-old secret societies, and especially one dealing in bound books, The Unbroken Spine has run into the inevitable problem of modern-day technology. Basically, Clay has been able to crack an Unbroken Spine code – that normally takes members months (if not years) – in two days, using the internet.
Which is what makes this book awesome. Obviously, the whole book industry is changing and has changed drastically in the past decade, and will probably continue to change forever. But it’s been a somewhat reluctant change, I guess depending on who you talk to. There are those who vehemently swear that Amazon is pure evil, and those who adapt and make the best of the changing situation.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore mirrors this whole debate in a really, really fun way. He’s talking about the conservative leader of The Unbroken Spine (The First Reader), and his refusal to acknowledge that embracing technology and the internet might actually help his society’s cause, rather than hurt it.
But at the same time, while you’re reading and getting this cool lesson in “open mindedness will get you much farther than refusal to acknowledge inevitable change,” you’re also indulging in nerdy, pop-culture-y story about a guy, his hilarious inner-monologue, and the crazy situations he and his friends find themselves in due to his job at Penumbra’s.
There’s also this cool sense of job-justification throughout the book. I don’t know if that’ll make sense unless you’ve read it, but Clay begins the book feeling inadequate because he’s working with books while his friends work at internet-centric corporations and start-ups. Then, this awesome potential-for-immortality quest comes up, and even Google can’t crack the code, and suddenly Clay’s job becomes the most meaningful.
Which isn’t to say that it’s pointless before the quest, because Sloan does an amazing job of describing the quaint perfection of a small, old, independent bookstore. And this whole job-justification isn’t even really a main theme in the book. Just a cool detail that made it even better.
Anyway: such a great book, it gave me hope and made me incredibly happy. Everyone read it, and let’s eagerly await Sloan’s next novel together. ◊
‘The genius of libraries is that they are all different.'”
– page 47
“You know, I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.”
– page 253