Thursday, February 14, 2013

Book Review: Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore

I was reading Robin Sloane's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
a few weekends ago and decided to take it along to a hair appointment in the hopes the wait time there would encourage me to finish it. I was facing a deadline with the library and didn't want to pay overdue charges, yet I just couldn't get the book done. So along for the appointment it came.

One of the stylists saw me reading the book, came over and asked if I was enjoying it. My response? "Yeah, it's alright except for being a love letter to Google." I was a bit surprised by my comment--as was he--but thinking on it now it was the right response. And it crystallized why my reading was so slow going.

Being only half-way through the book at that time though, I wondered if I was being too hasty in my assessment. Would I have made this comment if he had caught me at the end of the book?


(Insert an accompanying deep sigh).

I loved the concept for this book. I could envision the shelves, the people, the expressions, the environments. I had a nice visual of Mr. Penumbra planted in my head from the moment he was introduced. The premise and execution is all kinds of nerdy and awkwardness. It's similar to Ernest Cline's Ready Player One in this regard but much less dense and less intellectually invigorating.

My problem, however, was I kept getting pulled out of the narrative every time I saw the word "Google" or when there was some veiled reference to it. Frustrating, because there is a fair bit of Google here to oogle (haha, groan).

Pushing this situation aside for a moment, the book is about the (mis)adventures of web designer-marketing exec Clay Jannon. Jannon is a recent addition to Mr. Penumbra's bookstore, having been recently laid off and increasingly desperate for work. He becomes the night clerk there, catering to an almost non-existent clientele who "never browse. They come wide-awake, completely sober and vibrating with need.”

Vibrating with need when entering a bookstore? Hmmm, I can relate.

To fulfill their needs, Jannon climbs a ladder, grasps one of the volumes and sends them on their way. Then he dutifully logs the appearance and manner of each person, sometimes being quizzed by Mr. Penumbra as to his observational skills. Intriguing, right?

The oddness of his observation responsibilities spurs Jannon on to figure out who these customers are, what is in the mysterious and cryptic volumes, and what is really going on to necessitate a 24-hour bookstore. His adventures in discovering answers to these queries lead to the discovery of a secret society with an old school underground headquarters in New York. It also leads to an awareness that perhaps "[a]ll the secrets in the world worth knowing are hiding in plain sight.” 

Now, back to Google. Penumbra lays out the value of technology for his mission: ‘Computers, my boy,’ he says. ‘They hold the key for us. I have suspected it for some time, but never had proof that they could be a boon to our work.’” And I agree with the sentiment, especially in the context of what occurs in the book. And I get why it is a leading character in the story. But, but, but...

I don't know; I just couldn't get past the Google aspect and therefore couldn't get involved enough in the story to care. I understand its importance in transforming our social and technology landscapes, but so what. My mental blockade to accepting this particular character meant I couldn't really get involved with the story; the mysterious elements didn't really seem all that mysterious. And without the mystery, without a propelling force driving the narrative, reading the book became quite a boring exercise for me rather than the exciting one I expected based on other reviews.

Jannon makes the comment about midway through the story: "The right book exactly, at exactly the right time." I wish this was true of my experience.

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