Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (or Renaissance in an Information Age)

Nostalgia is a curious beast. It is small, slight and seemingly innocuous. It is easy to indulge in, difficult to escape from and has a habit of glossing over important milestones with little recognition.

Take for instance my childhood. If pressed for an impartial, truthful answer, I’d probably describe my  younger life experiences as a fairly unpleasant, long-reaching period interspersed with humiliating encounters, embarrassing crushes, awkward compulsory participations in class and terrifying  speeches, with a single place of sanctuary and escape: books.

If caught in the throes of reflection, however, it would be a completely different story. Life would be filled with adventures and clambering up and down trees, of walkmans and disc mans and the origins of chatrooms. It would be about life before and after mobile phones became small and affordable, (my first was a nokia 3210 – it bounced if you dropped it and you could only play snake);  about afternoon television, FRIENDS and sabrina the teenage witch; of peanut butter sandwiches and tiny teddies, long skirted school uniforms and when surf brands were the ONLY brands you could wear…

But even taking into account the difference between rose coloured reflection, and the cold hard truth, it is still a micro lens on a macro subject. It focuses only on my limited experiences and completely disregards the bigger picture. The movement and flow of technology, the tectonic shifting of ideas, concepts and principles that help to underpin the world we live in today.

My childhood memories are too small, too insular, too singular to build up an image of what life was really like.

Mr Penumbras 24hr Bookstore, (MP24B), is a bit like that.

It is evocative and dewy-eyed and clever and funny. It is also so very firmly set in 2012, that even reading it now, less than 3-odd years later, it seems a little…dated. Like a butterfly in a jar, it can observed, catalogued and examined in detail, but not for too long, mind you, or you might just end up killing it.

I am writing about this now, before the magic wears off, because, I feel that the wistfulness and glad-heartedness of MP24B, is sure to be impermanent and I am worried I will wake up tomorrow, see a myriad of plot failure and endemic flaws and I will not like it anymore.

MP24B centres its story around Clay. An ad-hoc designer, creating marketing materials for algorithmic bagels. He finds himself jobless from a recession (I hesitate to use ‘the’ as there have been so many recently, it’s difficult to keep track); and picks up the night shift as a clerk in a 24hour bookstore.

So far nothing the title couldn’t have told you. BUT the bookstore holds secrets, mysteries and books and a dark shadowy backlist area that odd people come in at all hours to acquire books from. Who is Mr Penumbra? What are these books in code? Why are all the main character’s names only one syllable?


MP24B asks many questions. And whilst it does make many observations and witty commentaries on the 21st century; it gives few, if satisfying answers. In the midst of its international espionage, hi-tech and low-tech geek fest and peek into Google’s backyard, it provides little resolution to its philosophising presence. (See? The magic, she is already wearing thin)

It does however, contain beguiling character descriptions and intriguing turns of phrase.

‘He works with crazy intensity, feeding hours like dry twigs into the fire, just absolutely consuming them, burning them up. He sleeps lightly and briefly, often sitting up straight in a chair or lying pharaoh-like on the couch. He’s like a storybook spirit, a little djinn or something, except instead of air or water his element is imagination’


‘The kitchen: Ashley’s sanctum sanctorum. I tread lightly in the kitchen; I prepare meals that are easy to clean up, like pasta and Pop-Tarts. I do not use her fancy Microplane or her complicated garlic press. I know how to turn the burners on and off, but not how to activate the oven’s convection chamber, which I suspect requires two keys, like the launch mechanism on a nuclear missile.’


‘Lapin breaks away from Broadway and picks a path toward Telegraph Hill. Her velocity is steady, even as the landscape rises underneath her; she’s the little eccentric that could. I’m huffing and puffing, quick-stepping a block behind her, struggling to keep up…I make it to the landing and sit on a step to catch my breath. This lady has serious stamina. Maybe she’s light, with bones like a bird. Maybe she’s slightly buoyant. I look back down the way we came, and through the lace of black branches I can see the lights of the city far below.’

It does make you think too. And sometimes that it even more important than providing an answer. And it is a book about books and those that love them, technology and those that love it. And puzzles. And who doesn’t love them?

It is as much a love letter to the 21st century as much as it is a reminisce of times gone by.

‘It’s mesmerizing. I’ve never seen anything at once so fast and so delicate. The arms stroke the pages, caress them, smooth them down. This thing loves books…I sidle up next to Jad, where I can see the pages of the logbook stacking up on his monitors. The two cameras are like two eyes, so the images are in 3-D, and I watch his computer lift the words right up off the pale gray pages. It looks like an exorcism.’

MP24B sets forth that books are like the first forms of internet, that printing presses were the wiki’s of their day; that by capturing, replicating and sharing knowledge (both old, new and traditional), we are creating eternal lives for ourselves. We are documenting our path to Valhalla.

It is a rosy-eyed view of the hulking shadowy beast that so much of our life is leveraged from. Technology, e-everything in MP24B is not some evil pac-man devouring everything in its path, making people, places, jobs obsolete – but more like a Big Friendly Giant, that tempers our sharp edges, shapes our existence, records our past and directs our future travels.


It is also a story about a rag-tag bunch of anti-heroes, who stumble on a quest and follow an adventure all the way down a rabbit hole. I liked this very contemporary approach to dealing with quests: no James Bond heroics, jumping out of helicopters or climbing the cliffs of insanity. But rather, leave is taken from work, trains are caught, favours are called in from friends, threads posted on forums, artefacts found via paperwork, forms filled out correctly and the denouement? Told via a slide show presentation.   

Now that is awesome.

I don’t really buy the idea that Silicon Valley, or San Francisco really, is to the Information Age, what Venice was to the Renaissance,

‘This city of ours—it has taken me too long to realize it, but we are in the Venice of this world. The Venice.’

See? Nostalgia – she is a dangerous beast.

But I will admit to getting a little choked up when the whole world stood still for 3 entire seconds to find a solution to the mystery and Sloan’s writing admirably captures the hugeness of the Google monster coming to bear all of its considerable weight and power against this one problem.

In the end, though, it was still a person that solved the dilemma. Technology sped up some of the clue reveals, but ultimately it was our every-man Clay that unravelled the conundrum.

See? People will ultimately triumph.

Perhaps I identified too much with Clay, jack of many trades, master of none, aimless and career-less bouncing from one job to the next, a leaf blown at will by the winds of many start-ups. But he was still an worthy guide through this intriguing world.

In the midst of MP24B, the reasons for the first printing of books, was to share information with the world. It was to create a tangible, physical record of our life, belief system and world. What are books, but a way to show the path of our travels, the trails of our knowledge, our experiments and our failures? They records our triumphs and heartbreaks and everything in between. technology hasn’t made that obsolete, it has simply leveraged it and moved it to a new platform, a bigger playing field.

The clarion call remains the same: to share information with the world.

Well, that sounds delightful, and whilst I like the idea that technology hasn’t replaced books but is an adjunct to the gaining of knowledge, I don’t know that they cohabit quite as easily in the real world, as they do in MP24B.

If you come across it, The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, by Rebecca Solnit, makes a fascinating companion read to MP24B, in particular, her three essays on Silicon Valley: 

  • The Google Bus: Silicon Valley Invades
  • We’re Breaking Up: Noncommunications in the Silicon Age
  • Pale Bus, Pale Rider Silicon Valley Invades, Cont’d

The reality of her essays, juxtapositioned against the slightly farcical nature of MP24B is like eating something sweet and sour at the same time. Interesting too, to see two sides of the issue.

MP24B: all about the symbiotic harmonization of knowledge and technology expanding the world;

Solnit: that our current platform of technologies could be actually contracting communication.

Solnit: ‘Our lives are a constant swirl of information, of emails that can be checked on phones, and phones that are checked in theaters and bedrooms for texts, and news that streams in constantly. There is so much information that our ability to focus on any piece of it is interrupted by other information, so that we bathe in information but hardly absorb or analyze it. Data are interrupted by other data before we’ve thought about the first round, and contemplating three streams of data at once may be a way to think about none of them.’

MP24B: there is so much data, documentation and guidance available, that absorbing new skills and information is easy, learning is quick, searching is vast and mastering skills is just a matter of reading, researching and tutorials…

 I don’t know if either is completely accurate. By themselves, they are both a little too insular, singular, and extreme, but side by side? Both are equally engrossing.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, pressed like a forgotten flower between the pages of an old book. Its magic is illusory, its impression is light, and its presence fleeting. Within a few days, you’d be hard-pressed to remember its sum, but it is endearing and charming and totally worth a read.



Valancy: watching re-runs of Sabrina, and eating tiny teddies. straight out of the bag.


 header image: Still Life with Books, Jan Lievens, c. 1627 – c. 1628

8 thoughts on “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (or Renaissance in an Information Age)

  1. Oh, I remember having this book on my radar before others took its place! So glad you talked about it! I loved your description of the everyday questing—sounds charming and just about right.

    And as for technology and information—oh, have you watched this show called Silicon Valley? It’s funny and according to hubby a very accurate depiction of the Valley in many ways (which makes me want to tear my hair out at times!)—anyway, like with everything I think it’s always about HOW one uses the medium, isn’t it? I mean any tool in and of itself isn’t bad, or good, per se—it’s our usage that defines how good or bad it ultimately turns out to be. . .

    So of course, while there’s tons of information out there that DOES make our life easy in so many ways, it’s no use if I’m always glued to my screen.

    This actually reminds me of my recent Gilmore Girls binge. (I love, love that show! Have you ever tried it?) I saw about four episodes back-to-back and then realized that it’s not that much fun to binge-watch (for me that is, I still have deep admiration for those who love watching an entire season back-to-back!). . . I LIKE doing other things because my focus on those other things adds to my enjoyment of just this one thing, you know? (and now I have DEFINITELY veered off the book, AGAIN! :P)


    1. How lovely! In a midst of my writing this post I actually came across that show! I promptly bought and am now (impatiently) waiting for it to arrive via post…How excellent to get endorsement from a reliable source like your wonderful self…rather than those named global_rock_star2197%x who write not particularly loquacious reviews on amazon. lol.

      And you are totally right, it is how the mediums and technologies are used and how we interact with them. Also, I suppose, how much liberty we give large corporations to impact on our lives. Because if there is one thing big businesses are good at, is it trying dictate how we should run our lives, and become their (unpaid) ambassadors by buying their endless supply of products…
      Especially with technology platforms, because none of them are really necessary for survival, it’s more about creating that cult-like following that the products need to sustain themselves…

      Total immersion in something is never really that healthy — although I may not include Gilmore Girls in that! I LOVE that show and cried buckets when it ended. Now I re-watch the series every couple of years, because it is so clever and funny and sly…and they have adorable clothes.
      I too, can only marvel at those who marathon…I was about ready to die from this year’s film festival and that had breaks and sleeps in between! Too much of a good thing can be de-sensitising I think; it all starts to blur and diminishes enjoyment…


      1. How serendipitous!

        And I guess big companies and products CAN exert a seemingly hypnotic affect on us, especially if we don’t pay much attention to and/or aren’t particularly aware about our consumption patterns. . .

        I started watching Gilmore Girls this year, and funnily enough, after the whole Cruise book discussion came across “Coffee at Luke’s: An Unauthorized Gilmore girls Gabfest,” a collection of essays centered around the show, and edited by none other than Jennifer Cruise! I have way too many books that I want to finish reading before I get to it but I managed to sneak-read the intro, which seemed to be bang on spot to me, talking as it did about the dialogues and the writing which really was the heart of the show.

        Also, not sure if you’re aware but Netflix has commissioned another “season” of Gilmore Girls–4 episodes of 90 mins each. Google for more details!


          (*Valancy faints on the keyboard*)

          Also – Coffee at Luke’s?? That sounds like 10 shades of fantastic…Totally on my list now thank you!! And intriguing with the Jennifer Crusie connection…it’s like we’re all playing 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon…


    1. Ha ha – the tiny bear-men are totally delicious, especially when they are dipped in chocolate!! We used to have bear-wars…winner eats all…not a bad way for a tiny teddy to go – with valour, sacrificed to the greater good on a picnic bench… lol.


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