****Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore

books, bookshelves, library

(photo: PromoMadrid, creative commons license)

By Robin Sloan, read by Ari Fliakos – This book was on many “best books of 2012” lists, and it’s tremendously entertaining. The narrator, Clay Jannon, is an unemployed web marketer who finds work as the sole night shift clerk at a strange San Francisco bookstore. The store stocks little current or popular inventory and attracts few customers; however, it has masses of arcane, one-of-a-kind reading matter that is not for sale, merely borrowed. The borrowers are regulars, a “community of people who orbit the store like strange moons,” taking out volume after volume of the dusty materials. Clay has been warned not to read these texts, and any of you who recall Bluebeard’s wife know what’s coming next.

Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder. I am exactly halfway up. The floor of the bookstore is far below me, the surface of a planet I’ve left behind. The tops of the shelves loom high above, and it’s dark up there — the books are packed in close, and they don’t let any light through. The air might be thinner, too. I think I see a bat.

I am holding on for dear life, one hand on the ladder, the other on the lip of a shelf, fingers pressed white. My eyes trace a line above my knuckles, searching the spines — and there, I spot it. The book I’m looking for.

The prohibited books are in code.

As he’s starting to suspect more going on than meets the eye, Clay meets Kat Potente, an expert in data visualization working for Google, and, determined to impress her, he creates a computer model of the store. When powerful computers match the book borrowing records against the store model, strange patterns appear. Together Clay and Kat embark on a quest to figure out the store’s coded secrets. They soon encounter a strange 500-year-old society of academics, the Unbroken Spine.

Against the society’s hundreds of years’ experience with OK (Google-speak for Old Knowledge) is arrayed all the creativity and computing power of the Googleplex, along with Clay’s colorful friends, and kindly Mr. Penumbra himself. The book “dexterously tackles the intersection between old technologies and new with a novel that is part love letter to books, part technological meditation, part thrilling adventure, part requiem” said Roxane Gay in The New York Times (though I disagree with her “requiem”). The plot isn’t really the point—it’s a flight of fancy—but the juxtapositions of old and new raise significant questions about the enduring power of print, about the value of the search as well as the answer.

On its journey, the novel gently skewers some of the greater pretensions of Silicon Valley and those who feverishly embrace—and reject—technology. But in a good way. Numerous times while listening, I laughed out loud. The reading by Ari Fliakos was breathless and eager, a perfect voice for the 20-something Clay. Since I listened to the audio version, I missed the clever touch that the book cover glows in the dark.