“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”: A Review

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Have you read any of the Harry Potter books?

Have you read any Dan Brown?

I am not insinuating that this book measures up to some sort of orgasmic Brown/Rowling clawing-open-of-heaven. Rather, I simply want to prepare you for the the literary trade winds that undoubtedly dictated the course of this book.

One part Google worship, one part cribbing from the DaVinci Code and National Treasure, and one part hipster story at a cocktail party, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has a little bit of magic and quite some charm.

I mention the Potter books because Rowling had the ability to create magic out of a normal place: you turn the corner – the right corner – and bam! you find yourself in a magical lane. This sense of magic hidden around corners is what Sloan does best.

For a novel about books and books stores, and one presumes is an ode to book and reading about books, this book seemed to dwell primarily on technology and how technology pretty much blows books and “old knowledge” out of the water completely. I was left with a deflating sense that the past has nothing to offer, and that I should sell me soul to Google as quickly as possible. The future is now, and already I feel outdated.

The little world Sloan created here is sunny and warm. Nothing really bad happens here. There is a “bad guy” but we only can tell he is the bad guy because Sloan knows we have seen enough Hollywood movies to know the story and the characters in advance. There is no mystery here either, and what is very promising in the first few chapters peters out quite quickly.

The book is so cheerful that it made me a little depressed.

Depressed about the caliber of writing, about books, about what it means that the back of the book had major papers raving about the book and I found it to be suitable mostly only for young adults. Technology dominates the story and plot and most of Sloan’s asides (which are witty and often interesting). It felt like the literature world bowing in surrender and long-suffering to its new Lord and Master, the INTERNET.

It is not that I did not enjoy the book, I just felt like I had fallen in to Picador’s plan to try and get Millennials to read books. It just felt ready to be a screenplay in a Pixar movie; not a work of literature.

I am willing to admit that maybe the fact that books that read like literature is exactly what people are not reading anymore; I guess that most people simply do not connect to the themes or the style anymore. They have no patience for worlds of subtle symbolism, lyrical description and poetic truth (as opposed to clinical truth; you know, bar graphs and percentages).

The ancient mystery that Sloan’s alter-ego uncovers and effortlessly unwraps is not solved by Google’s computers. But this only because there is no message that computers can understand; the message we receive in the end from the ancient mystery is hardly worth the effort at all. And Sloan fails to deliver at least a whiff that maybe there are things that computer and technology and get for us.

I know that publishers are insecure about the future of books and their profit margins. We all are. But part of getting people hooked on books will be to deliver content that cannot be got from a Google search.

Probably makes for a decent audio book.

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