Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.

Reviewed by Dana Eckstein

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is the kind of novel that makes us all remember the reason why we first wanted to work in libraries. It captures the passion of those who are addicted to the written word and find the secrets of life contained within each rustling page of a book. Amidst the cuts that are forcing many libraries to shorten their hours, library readers can revel in a world where a 24-hour bookstore is a valuable commodity, where patrons rush in at 2am desperately needing more books, and this establishment is capable of catering to the very desire. 

The story follows a young man named Clay who ends up working in the store by chance. The bookstore is normal at first, a room filled with shelves, the shelves filled with books, and the books filled with pages, but things start to appear strange when Mr. Penumbra tells him that he may not read any of the books. As all great stories begin, tempted by the forbidden fruit, Clay peeks and discovers that books are part of a great puzzle, and that he has stumbled into the center of an elaborate secret.  His indiscretion, far from getting him fired as he had feared, thrusts him into the unlikely role of hero. It appears that Mr. Penumbra has been waiting for someone like him, with his curiosity, tenacity, and resourcefulness. 

For the reader who enjoys a sense of the vintage, this book contains all the classic tropes of a good mystery from late-night sleuthing to hidden passageways and a secret society dedicated to decoding the encrypted archives from the greatest minds of the latest centuries. For the reader who loves technology, this book also highlights the best that this century has to offer: digitization, open-source inventions, and behind-the-scenes look at Google’s information operations. Coded manuscripts and Kindles sit cozily together across this narrative which explores the tension between the old and new methods of information safeguarding. 

Robin Sloan does for archiving and data science what Indiana Jones did for archeology. This book is a thrilling adventure that combines passion for books, bookstores, technology, mystery, romance, technology, and typography. It should have a spot in every librarian's personal collection.

Dana Eckstein is an MLIS student at Rutgers University.