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Book Review: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstorewas published in 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan). 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore | Robin Sloan | Book Cover


The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The customers are few, and they never seem to buy anything; instead, they “check out” large, obscure volumes from strange corners of the store. Suspicious, Clay engineers an analysis of the clientele’s behavior, seeking help from his variously talented friends, but when they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, they discover the bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls.


Robin Sloan’s New York Times bestselling novel begins its enchantments before one even flips open to the first page. The paperback cover, decorated in neon yellow rectangles mimicking books on a shelf, is wondrous after darkness has fallen, so long as it has been exposed to light for a certain amount of time. After the lights are back on, you’re swept up in a story about, yes, a bookstore, but also its related patrons, clerks, and owners, knowledge, and of all things, Google.

This formula may seem impossible, but Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is all about unlocking the key to the seemingly impossible. Following Penumbra’s newly hired clerk, Clay Jannon, we embark on a journey that leans towards the cliché, but offers unpredictability and caters to the imagination and detective instincts of its readers. Can technology and “old-world” habits, patterns, and institutions work and survive together? Are they mutually exclusive? Does one depend on the other? Answers to these questions are to be interpreted by the reader; the narrative voice of Clay Jannon seems to be in more favor of one side, while not discounting the other. But does that mean a side cannot be chosen?

These complexities are presented in relatively simple prose that gives this book pate-turner appeal. Although part of the Epilogue chapter is a tad trite, it reinforces a hopeful message for the future of knowledge and innovation, which is the message of the lesson learned by those involved with Penumbra and the contents of his bookstore – I’m not going to spoil that here.


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