Toronto: HarperCollins, c2012.
I read this charming book over a weekend -- and what fun it was! It's the story of Clay Jannon, a young man in San Francisco who is job hunting after losing his web design gig for a bagel company. He wanders into Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore when he stumbles upon it by chance and sees a "help wanted" sign. And then the story begins...
Mr. Penumbra's is a mysterious vertical bookstore: the shelves go up and up and up. And certain books on these shelves are only for the use of special customers who borrow rather than buy. Clay begins to wonder... just what is going on?
It's when Clay gets sucked into trying to figure out what exactly Mr. Penumbra's is that the story begins to really get exciting. The mysterious and atmospheric setting of the store is so well-drawn I was beginning to wish that I could drop by and push open the door myself! As someone who has owned a small bookstore, I appreciated the small quirky things that Clay notices about the store and its infrequent customers, and his sudden rash of ideas about how to promote and make the store a success -- very amusingly realistic!
And as a former bookstore owner as well as a librarian, I do love the world of books. But I also love the world of technology and all the amazing possibilities it opens up for us, as individuals and within the world of books and libraries. Somehow, Sloan has created a book that is of the moment, a book that celebrates all the weird and unbelievable things that we can do with technology -- well, perhaps what the young and clever programmers, artists and Google employees in the story can do with technology -- and yet at the same time honours and celebrates the magic of the written word in all its complex history. It is pitch perfect; he creates a mysterious secret society who worship the words of Aldus Manutius, an early printer, and love the book as the ideal physical object. And then he and his group of friends (conveniently including a venture capitalist who can fund their travels and adventures) try to solve the mystery of Mr. Penumbra's secret society using the latest technologies -- data visualization, Google's powers of massive computation, portable handmade scanners, and so on. These two aspects meld very well, and make for a delightful tale that celebrates nerdy cleverness with energy and enthusiasm. Books are not denigrated, while technology is not worshipped mindlessly. He strikes just the right balance, and shows that book lovers and technophiles are not exclusive sets.
I also really enjoyed the characters with whom Sloan has populated this story. Clay himself is not too annoying, as youngish slackers can often be in these kind of stories (at least to me). He is too energetic and not cynical enough to irritate! His friends, including a fellow nerd from childhood (now a successful tech business owner), his sole coworker at the bookstore (a grad student), and sometime girlfriend Kat (Google employee), are all appealing and fun to read about -- it's not all just Clay. Something I liked was the relationship between Kat and Clay. She is a whiz, a very bright and ambitious woman who also happens to be pretty cute. She and Clay start a relationship, but she is allowed to develop throughout the book and when she keeps advancing in her work at Google she starts to become a person who is clearly out of Clay's league. In many books like this, she would have been slotted as the pretty girlfriend, lucky to be slumming it with Clay...but here, she grows past him and moves into another level of success that he can't compete with. I loved that she was a strong, successful, brilliant and ambitious character.
One last note: the settings are great. Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore is atmospheric and realistic, Google itself is amazing to visit through this story, there is a Gothic and marvellous headquarters for the secret society of booklovers, even Clay's apartment is fascinating thanks to his roommates. There is one amazing location, a museum/archive that Clay has to visit to find a particular item, that is fantastical, lively and enthralling for this librarian to ponder! You might be able to tell by now that I really, really enjoyed this book and found it fun, energetic and perfectly drawn. Lots of fun to read, and, it glows in the dark :)