Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Robin Sloan’s debut novel was just astonishing.

Assumed audience: Lovers of books in all their glory.

cover for Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan (2012)
Sloan’s debut novel delighted me to no end. This book could not have been aimed more directly at me if Robin Sloan had sat down and interviewed me about my tastes and interests and loves. But it was not just fun; it was about something: books, and friendship, and knowledge, and immortality.

It’s taken me a while to get around to reading Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — not because of any lack of interest, but because life has been bumpy lately. When I finally did get to it, though, I was rewarded with a book that was exactly what I needed.

Stephen and I chose Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as the final entry in Winning Slowly Season 8 months ago, and we both had high hopes for it based on our previous exposure to Sloan. I read and reviewed Sloan’s second novel, Sourdough, earlier this year, and both of us have been subscribed to Sloan’s newsletter for quite some time.1 But I don’t think either of us could have predicted just how perfect a bookend to the season this particular book would be — you’ll have to listen to our forthcoming episode(s?) discussing the book to hear our full take on it.

I have been a lover of books since I learned to read. I have loved them for what they do, and for the delight of their physicality. Jaimie often teases me that I should get a shirt with the text I would rather be reading a book” to wear to social events, and she’s not wrong. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a love letter to books — to their physical glories as well as the things they contain. And as I said in a comment mid-book: Sloan has the marvelous talent of taking things we have learned to treat as mundane, and infusing them with enough mystery, magic, or both that we feel the wonder of them again. He gave my already-deep love for books a fresh spark.

As with Sourdough, Sloan gives a knowing look at the hubris of Silicon Valley, but it is not a look of disdain or scorn. Rather, it is a bit bemused, offered with a friendly wink: You’re on to something, but you might have missed a thing over here as well.” Google and its sometimes ridiculous ambitions is woven right into the fabric of the tale, and its limits gently prodded, but there’s affection there too. The programming language Ruby shows up early and Sloan lavishes it with nearly as much affection as he otherwise reserves for books and breadmaking. The net is just the right kind of book for our age: one that sees the internet and the companies built on it neither as demonic destroyers nor as benevolent saviors, but a quirky mix of good and foolish ambition at the turn of an age — with one eye to how the turn of a previous age went, and another on how easily we hallow that previous age’s limits as well as its victories, to our own ill.

I could ramble on for a long time here. (I expect I’ll do exactly that in the forthcoming episode of Winning Slowly!) But for now I’ll simply say: you could do worse — much worse — here at the end of this very strange Year of Our Lord 2020 than to pick up Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and give it a read. It’ll make you laugh for certain; it’ll give you a much-needed jolt of joy. And if you happen to be like me in one particular way (I dare not spoil it) you’ll spend the entire last fifty pages of the book grinning ear to ear.


  1. As I said in the opening words of my review of Sourdough, when Alan Jacobs gushes about an author, I take him seriously. Stephen has a similar stance. ↩︎