Title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Author: Robin Sloan
First Published: 2012
Genre: Mystery, Contemporary
Age group: Adult
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
As a person who loves reading, I generally have a soft spot for bookstores. Those are sort of paradise for all of us book nerds, with all those piles and shelves of books with pretty covers and amazing stories hidden in them. There is always some sort of mystery I feel surrounding me whenever I step into a bookstore, because you never know which story the book you are about to buy would be like.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a mystery all of its own. First of all it doesn’t look like a typical bookstore, with its perfect rows of books divided by genre or author’s name with the bestsellers taking the front place. Not at all. This place is actually very small, narrow and the bookshelves go very high up to the ceiling, so the clerk, who is also the protagonist, his name is Clay, has to climb to obtain the requested book.
Secondly, there apparently are practically no bestsellers on sale, or any book which was popular lately. Instead there are some classics, which are mostly the owner Mr. Penumbra’s favorites. And also the Waybacklist, as Clay likes to call it. This is basically all the books which are put on those high shelves, and those are some very very weird books. As Clay finds out, they all seem like codes, because there’s no real text in them, only some letters in random order printed on every page.
Thirdly, and this is the most weird thing, is that those strange books are actually pretty much the only ones that have readers. During Clay’s shifts, which happen at night, he always have a visitor who would get this or that book from the Waybacklist. This would happen in the middle of the night, which is pretty crazy. Like, couldn’t those people wait for the morning?
So, of course, Clay is suspicious. He doesn’t know what’s going on, and at first he believes it’s some kind of a cult. Conveniently, he has some really good friends, who help him to find out what is really behind all of it. They learn that all those books really are written in code, and all their readers are just ones of hundreds other people from all over the world trying to solve the biggest code in the history of book printing.
While all those people tried to solve the code without any computers unsuccessfully for almost 500 hundred years, Clay and his team believe that it would take a computer (well, not any, but the biggest one from over at Google) about a minute to do this job. Needless to say, that it’s not like that, and in the end it actually takes a human mind to do what a machine definitely can’t.
The book’s biggest theme for me was definitely this never-ending clash between a human and a machine. Obviously, the computer can do so many things that people can’t, and they also are so much faster. But, as this story and many others show, the computer would never have any emotional connection with the things it’s working with. It just operates facts in the quickest and easiest way possible just to give a result. A computer doesn’t connect with any stuff he works with, and that is it’s weak spot.
I also liked that this book touched upon this new competition between printed books and e-readers. There are people, who are very devoted to actual books and consider those who use e-readers traitors. And there are those who go with the progress and buy all those Kindles and Nooks, fill them with hundreds of books they want to read and never go to bookstores anymore. Personally, I’m neutral in this battle, because I think it’s all about reading in the first place, and to me it doesn’t really matter how you read, as long as you are reading. And I loved that this book showed the same point of view. Penumbra, for example, is clearly the supporter of this idea. He is the owner of a bookstore, he loves actual books so much. But he also does have a Kindle, and he is amazed by how easy it is to use it.
The mystery in the book was very engaging, and the ending definitely unpredictable. It read like a quest, which I really liked. My only complaint is that I feel like there were moments in this book which seemed unimportant to the story and without them the book would have been shorter and easier to read. But, nevertheless, the idea of the book is very unique and I really enjoyed reading it.