I loved Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The plot’s simple: with 20th and 21st century technology, uncover a literary mystery created in the Middle Ages. I consider this story fiction, but it could be classified as historical fiction since Sloan centers the story around Aldus Manutius, the first real publishing house established in the Middle Ages (Venice, Italy), creator of italic font, and the first establishment to use the semicolon.
I have experience in publishing, working with graphic design, and writing and editing. I’m familiar with calligraphy, and I love it that Steve Jobs studied calligraphy himself and that his studies created what we see and use on computer screens today. For me, the “old” and “new” technologies that surround reading, writing, design, and publishing are compatible and offer powerful tools for creativity. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore covers these topics–new and old technology in the publishing and reading arenas in a fun, light-hearted, and fast-paced novel.
It’s true that Sloan’s novel lacks deep character development, but that doesn’t bother me too much. Sloan’s focus in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore centers around Aldus Manutius’s encrypted codex vitae. According to myth, this codex presents a sophisticated puzzle that when solved, will provide the answer to humanity’s biggest question and quest (no, I’m not going to tell you what it is.) Members of the scholarly cult The Unbroken Spine have been dedicated to finding the solution to Manutius’s puzzle for 500 years. So if you are looking for a book with deep character development and weighty discussions about the meaning of life then Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is not the book for you. If you’re looking for a book focused on adventure rather than a character’s inner turmoil, this is the book for you. I found this focus refreshing. I loved the fast pace and the excitement and sense of adventure that the main character Clay, projects. I loved that Clay truly loves his friends and has each of them share not only in his failures, but also his successes in full. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it never did. Idealistic? Yes. But what’s wrong with a little idealism? A little hope? A little fun?
Some reviewers argue that the main character remains unchanged at the end of the book and that anyone over 30 will not find Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore interesting. I wholeheartedly disagree. I’m a forty-something year old book reviewer and I had a blast reading this book. I grew up when there was no internet, no texting, no cell phones. I grew up when video games were brand new with little blips of light on a handheld Mattel device. In my college years, no one had a desktop computer. At the time, desktop computers cost a lot more than they do now and they were the cutting edge of technology. I graduated over time from the typewriter, to the desktop, to the laptop, and now the tablet. When I find an IBM Selectric (I, II, or III) typewriter, I become extremely nostalgic and I want to hug it. I see a kindred spirit in Clay: someone who enjoys mixing old tech with new tech and someone who likes to approach life with a sense of play.
As for character change in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, there’s not much, but Clay finds his niche in life and I think that’s a big accomplishment in life. It’s important to remember (and easy to forget) that Clay narrates this as an older adult telling about an adventure when he was in his twenties. I think some reviewers forget this aspect.
Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore provides an opportunity to play and engage on an exciting quest. It’s not deep literature, just pure fun.