Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

I love this book.


But only in the print version.

When I recently had a lot of travel to do, I borrowed an e-reader from the library. My daughter noticed that Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, a novel, was one of the titles loaded onto the device's memory, and she recommended it to me.

Determined to see what I thought of an e-reader in general and this one in particular, I deliberately created a situation where I was stuck without a paper-and-ink book for part of the trip. I opened the file for this title, tried to read it, and decided the narrative felt cold and mechanical and that I would never develop any interest in, or empathy for, the main character. My daughter can tolerate some strongly idea-based books that I find tedious, and I pegged it as one of those. I quit after about the equivalent of fifteen pages. (I usually set fifty pages as my "trial amount" in a print book, but I find any quantity of text harder to gauge in e-format.) I ended up instead happily reading parts of Tina Fey's Bossypants. I didn't finish that book, and would like to. But it was episodic and immediately witty enough to survive the format.

When I got home, one of the library books my daughter had left for me to consider reading was Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. I was dubious. She'd forgotten she'd mentioned it to me in the previous context. She assured me it was good. I needed to grab a book when I was going somewhere that would potentially involve reading-appropriate types of waiting (rather than knitting-appropriate waiting), I needed something that would be diverting and not dismal, and that was the one I shoved in my bag. (Along with one of Alan Bradley's Flavia books, as backup. Just in case.)


Mr. Penumbra is a completely different experience in print. 

Among its topics are technologies (old-style and electronic), ways we discover things about the world around us, typography, and (toward the end) even some knitting. Also about making things by hand or through computer-power. And human relationships and power dynamics and. . . . That's just skimming the surface. It's an entertaining and thoughtful book, and not at all cold and mechanical.

It has earned a space on my short shelf of favorites. That's a library copy above, indeed, but there will be a personal copy added to the household library by this evening.


The jacket design, by Rodrigo Corral,* is kinda magical. That doesn't translate to the e-version, either. In fact, you can't experience it unless you have a physical copy of the book (looking at an image of it online won't do the job; even looking at it in a bookstore probably isn't adequate).


*Cool. He also did the cover for Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle. 


5 thoughts on “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”

  1. Interesting! As we discussed briefly the other day, I find reading anything on an e-reader more pleasant than reading a physical book, assuming the image layout survived the translation to electronic format.

    I haven’t made it to the end of three of the last four physical books I picked up for pleasure reading, but have read dozens of electronic books in that same period.

    FWIW I don’t like e-ink at all. I use my ipad or iphone as a reader.

  2. Jennigma, I am reserving my opinion about other reading formats. This was e-ink, and I did try varying the typeface style and size. (On the Tina Fey book, my optimal margin/size settings varied, depending on the reading conditions.) I don't have a iPad or iPhone, and while I've tried to read on the iPod Touch (should be similar to the iPhone), the small screen did me in. I'm tempted by an iPad mini some day, for other reasons, and would be happy to discover that it does well enough as a reader.

  3. I was a librarian for 36 years. I love books. Real paper and ink books. I read a whole lot, but have never tried an e-reader, nor do I intend to. I exchange books at a local used book store, and occasionally buy used books on line. That said, I have an Audible account and I love it. I get two books and transfer them to my iPhone each month. I listen while I knit, spin, drive the car, anything where I simply can’t read. I have used Audible for long enough that I recognize the names of good readers. Highly recommend it!

  4. Susan, I like your idea. I've listened to a bunch of audiobooks while commuting to jobs in the past (and my daughter listens for about two hours a day while she exercise: there's an audiobook from the library playing in the next room as I type). The reader makes all the difference!

    An audiobook that I listened to while spinning samples for The Fleece and Fiber Sourcebook was Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes. Tamim (with whom I went to college for part of our respective higher education years) is the reader. He was born in Afghanistan and grew up, and lives, in the U.S., so he has the cultural background to handle the job beautifully, and reads well in addition. Having him neatly pronounce the names of people and places added a lot to my enjoyment of the text. I recommend that particular work highly!

  5. With all the flooding here, particularly our central library downtown, I haven’t been able to get there to get the print version, but I have downloaded the Adobe Digital Editions version onto my desktop Mac.

    It’s not as convenient as a real book, but at least I get to read it!

    (And so far, I love it too! Thanks for the post, Deb, and hope you’re doing better.)

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