Required Reading: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Jessica Andrewartha

(This post originally appeared on: Nerd Academy)

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If you’re reading this, I firmly believe you have a favorite book. It might not be cool. It might not be high-brow. But you’ve got it. It’s a book that meant the world to you once. Maybe the book helped you make friends or tied you closer to the friends you do have. Maybe it was your friend when you didn’t have any others. Maybe you grew up with it. Maybe you wrote fan fiction for it. But it changed your life and you wouldn’t be the same without it. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a love letter to that book.

Actually, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a love letter to many things. To books certainly, but also to technology and the places where old and new intersect. It’s a love letter to design and to craftsmanship and to San Francisco. It’s also a really fun read.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore tells the story of Clay Jannon, a web-designer who finds himself desperately unemployed during the recession and takes a job as the night clerk in a beautifully old fashioned bookstore. He soon discovers that the bookstore holds a mystery and sets out with a team of friends to solve it, and not the old fashioned way.

This book in a magical mix of old and new. Our heroes describe themselves like a Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party, but are armed with search engines, data-mining, and super-fast Mac Books instead of arrows, swords, and spell books. They are solving a 500 year old mystery, but using up to the minute technology. And that works really well. It’s perfect for people like me who love both their cracked old 70s Lord of the Rings hardcovers and their Kindles. It’s hacker-cool retro chic. It’s Ready Player One for bibliophiles (except way better written).

But that’s not what I love most about the book. What I love is that it’s also a love letter to the books that shaped us a kids and teenagers. What’s memorable about Clay as a character isn’t anything he’s doing or thinking. That’s all pretty archetypal or run of the mill hacker/sleuth/adventurer stuff. What’s memorable is his friendship with his old middle-school buddy Neel and the way they created an inseparable bond around the fictional Dragon Song Chronicles. That book-based relationship was so real, so true, and so lovely. It brought me back to pretending to be Animorphs with my elementary school best friend. It brought me back to talking the intricate details of The Lord of the Rings with my middle school friends. It’s truly the heart of the story, and it’s a beautiful tribute to the stories that shape us.

So no, the book wasn’t perfect. Its mystery, once solved, wasn’t earth-shattering. Like many of the genres it looks up to, it’s pretty guy-heavy. But going back to the first time I cracked my own favorite dragon-encrusted fantasy novels, what I demand from my books isn’t perfection – it’s magic and heart. And Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore has those in spades.

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