Not enough hours in the day...

Not enough hours in the day…

“Lost in the shadows of the shelves, I almost fall off the ladder.”

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me, or is generally reading this, that I absolutely adore bookstores. From the big corporate machines like Waterstone’s to grubby second-hand bookstores down back alleys, I love them all. I’ve been in stores that specialise in politics, or the paranormal. I’ve explored enormous labyrinthine buildings over several floors, or tiny one-room things with curious looking titles. I’ve climbed spiral staircases into dusty attics, and slipped down corridors to damp basements of leathery hardbacks. I even worked briefly in a university bookstore. I will never tire of them, that sense of thousands upon thousands of stories hidden away, waiting to reveal their secrets. And yet, I feel some disappointment, as I will never encounter a bookstore like Mr Penumbra’s.

Our narrator, Clay Jannon, is another one of those bright young things who has been left floundering by the recession. He was working for in web design for a bagel company, but they’ve gone belly up and he is now searching for something else to fill his hours and bank account. A chance encounter at a curious looking bookstore leads to him becoming the night clerk at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The owner is curious, old and blue-eyed, completely trusting of his staff, but the store itself is stranger still. The single shop room is perhaps thirty feet high, books climbing up into the rafters. There aren’t many traditional books here, mostly unreadable tomes, each branded with a single name.

Even stranger than the books and the store are the customers. They rarely seem to buy anything, just swap out their last book for the next one. Clay becomes curious, wondering what sort of operation is being run here, and he soon finds himself embroiled in a centuries old mystery that he can only crack with the help of his wealthy friend Neel, a pretty young Googler called Kat, and a series of books he adored as a child.

This book, both witty and frothy with fun and love, is a totally engaging read. It takes you from the first printing presses back in history’s depths, right up to the Googleplex, Google’s head office. Clay is a funny narrator, a nerd caught up in a mystery that’s bigger than he can even envision. However, while the characters are lovely and very wonderfully nerdy, it is actually the scenery that dominates this book. Without giving away too much, the places we visit here are the titular bookstore and the aforementioned Google HQ (which, from what I know about Google, seems pretty accurate and definitely believable), but also the offices of a secret society in the middle of New York, a museum dedicated to the science and history of knitting, a city inside a San Francisco apartment, and a subterranean storage facility that contains historical treasures that can’t fit into any above-ground museums. Each is described in beautiful, hypnotic, dazzling detail. I just want to get up and go and find these places.

It’s a book in which the old technology of books and printing presses mixes seemlessly with the modern world of WiFi and Kindles, where the two forms must combine forces and work together to solve the unsolvable. It is a book for anyone deeply passionate about books, but also anyone with a deep fascination for the future of technology, or even the Internet itself, or design! Actually, this is one of those books that I dare anyone not to love.

The right book exactly, at exactly the right time.