Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is a novel whose own history uncannily echoes its themes. The original genesis of Sloan's debut novel was as a self-published ebook short story, which then, following its overwhelming success in that form, found its way to a print publisher and a new life as a traditionally published, full-length novel. Likewise, the plot and themes of Sloan's novel continuously - and vigorously - cross the boundaries between old and new technologies, between traditional knowledge and new ways of thinking, between a possibly irrelevant past and a still undefined future.
The central figure in this drama is Clay Jannon, a twenty-something graphic designer who has been the victim, on more than one occasion, of the Great Recession. To make ends meet, he finds himself working as the night clerk at the eponymous bookstore, which is really two bookstores in one. The front of the store houses more conventional titles like the Steve Jobs biography or the latest Murakami novel. In the back are the books Clay dubs the "Waybacklist", books so ancient and arcane that only a handful of people can even read them. Those people often come into the store in the wee hours, looks of desperation in their eyes, eager to borrow the next book in their self-defined series, often acting as if their very lives depend on pursuing the answers to a mysterious puzzle.
Which, it turns out, just might be true. The mystery at the heart of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is complicated and multilayered, so I don't want to give too much away here. Suffice it to say that Clay's investigation of the "Waybacklist" takes him from the headquarters of Google to a subterranean library in New York City, from fifteenth-century technologies to the most sophisticated computing networks available in the twenty-first century. Along the way Clay enlists the help of his oldest friend, his artistic roommate, a fetching Googler genius, his favorite childhood author, and, of course, Mr. Penumbra himself.
As you can probably tell, Sloan effectively combines real-world technologies, settings, and situations with unabashed fantasy - trying to discern the difference (and in many cases deciding it doesn't really matter) is a great deal of the fun. Ultimately a very satisfying (and surprisingly old-fashioned) adventure story, Sloan's debut is also a reminder to readers about the varied pleasures of reading, of discovery, of investigation, and of books themselves.
Ultimately, Sloan's novel offers the most profound respect for books and reading and learning in all its forms. As Clay notes near the novel's end, "We have new capabilities now - strange powers we're still getting used to." The novel both validates those powers and also values the centuries of old knowledge that came before. Whether readers are of the sort drawn to the smell of paper and the shape of typography or of the sort compelled by innovation, invention, and the thrill of the hunt, they can definitely find common ground in this novel that embodies - from the beginning to the end - the best of both worlds.
This review was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated for the September 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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