In his debut novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan addresses the intersection of written word and technology that is currently affecting readers (and publishers) everywhere. Electronic reading devices are becoming more and more the norm, making those printed novel seem less and less important. Our protagonist, Clay Jannon, begins to notice how this is affecting bookstores when he becomes a clerk in the titular store.
This particular bookstore only stocks very specific books that are seemingly chosen at whim by Mr. Penumbra, and the incredible lack of customers does not help. Yet this bookstore is not concerned with book sales so much as a mysterious cult-like society that revolves around the tall shelves of coded books in the store. As Clay becomes increasingly curious about the books, he stumbles onto this secret society and uses modern technology (via his love interest who works at Google) to attempt to crack these old codes.
The use of technology is frowned upon by those who love the printed word so much, raising controversy in this cult society. But the promise of what technology could do is enticing to others. Sloan soon has the characters running across the country on a Dan Brown-style adventure. Secrets, twists, and technological advancements abound in this novel. All of them used to examine how technology is seemingly destroying the written word, while also providing a compelling argument/answer for keeping print alive.
This is a compulsively readable and thoroughly enjoyable novel. It will be hard to put it down as you race to find out what secrets lie at the center of this society. Despite being about books, even those who aren’t huge bibliophiles can appreciate this story. And even if you aren’t up-to-date on all the capabilities of technology, Sloan explains just enough to maintain his story’s believability.
While this book was released in 2012, it is definitely the first book I’ll be recommending in this new year.