In our house, we tend to purchase hard copies of most of the books we read, as opposed to, say, going to the library or downloading digital versions. So I wish I could say I bought Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore in a quaint neighborhood bookstore, nestled between an independent coffee house and and an artisanal cheese shop. The truth is, though, that I bought it online during a “half price on used hardcovers” promotion. Then again, since this tale merges a world steeped in tradition with the high-tech sector, perhaps my path to acquisition was perfectly appropriate.
In Mr. Penumbra (yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and shorten that title from now on to save some key strokes), an out-of-work web designer named Clay Jannon responds to a help wanted sign and gets a job working the night shift at the titular shop after an interview consisting solely of naming his favorite book and climbing a ladder. Clay is swept up in the romance of the old place, even as he struggles to understand how it is staying in business and who the strange clientele really are. Occasionally an actual customer wanders in and buys a book, but most of the time the “customers” are regulars who borrow and return books from the special “Waybacklist.” When a mixture of curiosity and boredom finally gets the better of Clay, he starts looking at the elaborate volumes and discovers that they are encoded. Egged on by his new crush/girlfriend Kat (an actual customer who wandered in thanks to some targeted digital marketing Clay initiates, and who turns out to be a brilliant Google programmer with access to lots of high-tech toys), Clay sets out to try to break the code. That’s where the fun begins.
Mr. Penumbra has a lot going for it. . . it’s got mystery, intrigue, suspense, a light-hearted tone, and a grand adoration of books. It takes the reader on a journey from the archaic world of early type setting to the high-tech universe of the Google campus in a way that flirts with an analysis of modern communication and information delivery. The story got me thinking about how I love the feel of an old book in my hand; and yet, if the information is preserved digitally, that’s what really matters in the long run, right? Project Guttenberg has made over 50,000 works of literature available digitally and free of charge, ensuring the preservation of these classics for future generations. I love the idea of that, and yet one of my prized possessions is a 19th-century edition of Great Expectations. I’m often torn between love of tradition and love of progress.
I’m tempted to call Mr. Penumbra a DaVinci Code for geeks, but that’s an unfortunate comparison, since Mr. Penumbra doesn’t take itself remotely as seriously or try to convince me that the protagonist is a brilliant decoder when he doesn’t even recognize what backwards handwriting looks like. Another part of me wants to call it a light-hearted Name of the Rose, but let’s be honest, The Name of the Rose is one of the most brilliant books for book lovers ever written*, while Mr. Penumbra is, well, cute.
Don’t get me wrong, I found it charming and utterly delightful while I was reading it. Yet, even though I read this nary a month ago, I had to go to Goodreads to find a synopsis to remind myself of some of the key plot points. Perhaps it was because the plot got wrapped up in what I thought was a rather hasty fashion, and that the final moral about friendship, while sweet, didn’t feel completely earned to me. Regardless, it just didn’t deliver the epic adventure for which I was hoping.
Overall, this is a nice, light read, good for a rainy day or a dark and stormy night.
*Disclaimer: It’s been many years since I’ve read The Name of the Rose. Perhaps I should re-read before making such a bold statement.