Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is, I think, a book that works very well if the reader doesn’t look for a ton of deeper meaning in its story just because it’s a “book about books” — a category which nerds and bibliophiles tend to over-analyze, looking for messages and aphorisms about life and wisdom in reading.
Which is funny, because that’s kind of what Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly about. Clay, our main character, takes a job at the titular bookstore, and quickly notices it’s very unusual. The front of the bookstore stocks books that are actually sold, but the back contains large, ancient-looking leather-bound volumes that appear to be written in code and are checked out as if from a library to a small set of returning subscribers. Long story short and, minor spoilers here, the subscribers are members of a society that believes that the secret to immortality is documented in the pages of a book written and coded by the society’s founding member, but the key to decoding it has been lost. So, for centuries, society members have worked to break the code, hoping against hope that immortality might actually await them.
Clay and most of his friends don’t actually believe in immortality, but they do like solving puzzles. Set in the Bay Area, Clay enlists the help of a particularly gifted Google employee (and then, later, a whole team of them) to try to break the code. So there’s a theme here of technology vs. tradition, and how much the intent and the efficiency behind the method matter if the end goal is the same.
So, while the book is occasionally thought-provoking, it mostly reads like a straightforward mystery, with an everyman Millenial protagonist and his smart and/or rich friends rather than international spies. And as I said, on that level, it’s a great book. The shadowy nerd codebreaker society is very classically hidden in plain sight, and their worship of the first publisher and his best friend, the typeface designer, is hilariously geeky. The characters themselves are a little under-developed, but they work as archetypes who exist to move the plot forward. The resolution to the mystery toes the line of un/expected in a way that I appreciate: it doesn’t attempt to throw a massive Aha! Gotcha! Plot twist! at the reader, but rather plays out what we probably expected to happen but then finds another angle. It also nicely inhabits a space that I like, where it sometimes seems like it’s about to cross over into magical realism, but never actually goes there. It’s the “witching hour” effect: a certain breathlessness and a quality suggesting anything could happen; even though it doesn’t, and the sun still sets as normal, those moments on the edge still felt exciting and unreal.