Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

★★★★ (4/5)

A delightfully eccentric and magical story. “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” is all about dusty bookshelves and ancient, unread tomes and the glory of book spines and scrolls from a past not to distant. There is just the right amount of mystery and fancy, coupled with modern age technology and how both the past and future can exist in harmony and symbiosis.

On one hand, we have old knowledge buried between pages in code, written in ink. On the other we have fantastical machines, as if conjured from a future yet unborn, to decode and reserve old knowledge for posterity. Traditional knowledge might be at odds with what the present holds, but they are driven into compatibility by forces of camaraderie, loyalty and curiosity.

There is also a marvelous intertwining of different knowledge bases and career fields – software engineers, archaeologists, fantasy writers, coders and visual effect artists – that take the reader on a euphoric adventure across Google headquarters in San Francisco, to secret underground libraries and Storage Unit companies hoarding archaeological and historical artefacts.

Very rarely does one come across a story in which books and modern day tech are not pitted against each other. This is one of those magnificent reads. Highly recommended!

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

On Books & Old Knowledge

  • Inside: imagine the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side. This place was absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall, and the shelves went all the way up—three stories of books, maybe more.
  • His inventory is eclectic; there’s no evidence of pattern or purpose other than, I suppose, his own personal taste.
  • Old knowledge in general. We call it OK. Old knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite—in fact, OK accounts for most things that most people know,
  • But, Clay—sometimes discipline is the truest form of kindness.
  • So far, every line out of Moffat’s mouth has been pleasant repetition. His voice has been a needle bobbing comfortably through a deep groove in my brain. But that line—I have never read that line. That line is new.
  • Getting stolen is one of the best things that can happen to an object. Stolen stuff recirculates.
  • I’m really starting to think the whole world is just a patchwork quilt of crazy little cults, all with their own secret spaces, their own records, their own rules.

Preponderance of Technology

  • “Each big idea like that is an operating system upgrade,” she says, smiling. Comfortable territory. “Writers are responsible for some of it. They say Shakespeare invented the internal monologue. ”Oh, I am very familiar with the internal monologue. “But I think the writers had their turn,” she says, “and now it’s programmers who get to upgrade the human operating system.”
  • The switch flips over with a loud thwack and the computer rumbles to life. It sounds like an airplane taking off; there’s a loud roar, then a screech, then a staccato sequence of beeps.
  • Anatomix can now render the entire human body, with perfectly calibrated jiggle and luminosity in places you didn’t realize you had either
  • Kat is a New York neophyte. She gawked at the city’s predawn glitter as our plane curled down into JFK, her fingertips on the window’s clear plastic, and she breathed, “I didn’t realize it was so skinny.”
  • A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning.
  • With each new mega-project she describes, I feel myself shrink smaller and smaller. How can you stay interested in anything—or anyone—for long when the whole world is your canvas?
  • I’ve never listened to an audiobook before, and I have to say, it’s a totally different experience. When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes:
  • The Con-U storage facility is the most amazing space I have ever seen. Keep in mind that I recently worked at a vertical bookstore and have even more recently visited a secret subterranean library. Keep in mind, also, that I saw the Sistine Chapel when I was a kid, and, as part of science camp, I got to visit a particle accelerator.

Beautifully Constructed Sentences

  • None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things.
  • Neel owes me a few favors, except that so many favors have passed between us now that they are no longer distinguishable as individual acts, just a bright haze of loyalty. Our friendship is a nebula.
  • 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.
  • My imagination is almost physically straining. Fingers of thought are raking the space behind the cushions, looking for loose ideas, finding nothing.
  • A flood of shame washes through my blood and mixes with the anger and they swirl together into a heavy soup that makes me feel sick.
  • The day is beautiful; a sharp blue sky is dotted with wispy white clouds, all commas and curlicues.
  • There is no immortality that is not built on friendship and work done with care. All the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.

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