“Neel takes a sharp breath and I know exactly what it means. It means: I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.”
If those lines made your heart flutter, you are the perfect audience for Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore. The title of this book had me at hello and the story proved to be a delightful distraction for the nerdy set: author Robin Sloan takes the reader on a journey of the old and new, combining fantastical allegory and secret societies with web coding and google’s latest research technology.
Clay Jannon loses his web design job and takes a night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, soon to realize it is not an ordinary place: strange customers come in at all hours and rather than buying books, they borrow old volumes from the tallest shelves in the store to fulfill some kind of unnamed quest. Clay sets himself on a digital and real-life adventure to figure out what is going on, and it takes him from the San Francisco bookstore, to the Google headquarters, to a secret reading society in New York City. The story reads like an ode to literary adventure and creative imagination overlaid with the hope there may be answers to life’s puzzles.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the puzzles, and because it is my summer vacation, I have the time to linger. The conclusion I’ve come to as I read the news and watch the world spin around me is that I am thankful for the diverse range of people who have crossed my path and propelled me to thought and reflection, be it my friends, students, neighbors or fellow subway riders. The more I get to know people, the more I am able to see what it means to be human. But what I am also thankful for are my books–because narrative makes what one can’t see come alive–and I realize that because I read about all kinds of people, I find myself seeing people differently when I pass: wondering their stories, their passions, their heartbreak.
C.S. Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory about how there are “no mere mortals,” but that we all carry something beautiful and worthy of love in our souls. A moment in Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore that reminded me of this was: “Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines — it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits.” Immortals Sleeping spirits. My hope is that my summer reading, drawing, and painting will cultivate a mind filled with wonder at what I see in individuals rather than anonymous, crowd-driven annoyance.
One of the best ways to cultivate this, I think, is to walk into a local bookstore and choose a story that will introduce you to someone or something new, and let yourself sit in the emotions with which it confronts in you Sloan captures this feeling at the end of the novel and it just takes my breath away: “After that, the book will fade, the way all books fade in your mind. But I hope you will remember this: A man walking fast down a dark lonely street. Quick steps and hard breathing, all wonder and need. A bell above a door and the tinkle it makes. A clerk and a ladder and warm golden light, and then: the right book exactly, at exactly the right time.”