Hasten slowly

© C A Lovegrove

Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloane.
Atlantic Books, 2014 (2012).

For any nerdy bookworm this must surely prove a delightful read, whether it’s digital, on audio or, indeed, through the medium of print. It’s also entertainingly meta on several levels, and at times with details so convincing I had to do a bit of research to establish what was factual and what was made up.

It’s about books — naturally — but also about not judging a book by its cover; it has a gauche but engaging narrator who likes fantasy, though this novel isn’t a conventional fantasy; there is a villain of sorts who, oddly, doesn’t command an evil empire; and there is an assortment of characters, all highly individual, quirky even, who demonstrate that it takes all sorts to make life interesting without any one of them being treated as a social pariah.

In addition, for a novel that was published a decade ago — since when so much has advanced, technologically speaking — it seems to me, despite being a natural technophobe, that a lot of what’s described in it as possible in terms of computing power feels just about feasible nowadays, remembering that all the action is taking place during an alternative timeline.

© C A Lovegrove

Clay Jannon, an unemployed web designer in San Francisco, spots a shopfront proclaiming in a Gerritzsoon typeface Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, and in its window a sign indicating a job vacancy for a bookstore clerk. He gets the post and starts on the nighttime shift, taking over from one Oliver Grone and, eight hours later, handing over to the enigmatic owner.

In due course he starts to get curious about the tall shelves at the back of the store, filled with leather bound volumes: not for sale, they’re for loan only to a select group of curious individuals. When he investigates, each volume seems to consist of pages of code. There’s a mystery here alright and, to while away the dark hours when few if any customers enter, Clay starts on a personal quest to solve the mystery, armed with his laptop and assisted by flatmates, former school friends, and Kat Potente, a new girlfriend who works at Google.

To reveal much more of the narrative would be unpardonable, so I’ll resort to tantalising the potential reader with glimpses of detail which may or mayn’t be relevant. One involves the Latin motto, supposedly a favourite of the emperor Augustus: Festina lente, which translates as “Hasten slowly”. Associated with the device (found on a denarius minted in the reign of Titus) of an anchor entwined by a dolphin, symbolising stability combined with swiftness, the motto was adopted by the Renaissance printer Aldus Manutius as a trademark, and the anchor, dolphin and phrase were subsequently purloined by other publishing houses.

Dolphin and anchor: speed and stability

The trail followed by Clay will take him to Google headquarters, a knitting museum, a storage facility in the desert near Las Vegas, and to premises facing New York’s Central Park before returning to San Francisco via The Dragon-song Chronicles, a fantasy trilogy he and a friend, Neel Shah, avidly read and reread.

After a slightly slow opening the narrative rapidly gains impetus, ironically suggesting the reader hastens slowly so as to savour the layered symbolism and clues in the text. Normally I find fiction written in the historic present tiring, but Sloane’s skill was to persuade me its use here was no impediment to enjoyment. Along with engaging characters the epilogue too was neatly done, with no timelines left hanging loose and the whole brought to a successful and satisfying conclusion.

A final note, if one needs further encouragement, concerns Sloane’s choice of names for his characters: he clearly had a lot of fun concocting these, and given that some names have obvious significance it’s likely most if not all do. Oddly though, that verbal playfulness didn’t stop this reader wondering how much of the detail was true, trawling online to see for example what the Gerritzsoon typeface actually looked like.

This kind of interaction echoes Sloane’s interest in the interrelationship between print, virtual text and their audio equivalents. Whether you then experience this novel as an audiobook, on a screen or in pages which rustle I think you won’t be disappointed.

Read as part of #ReadIndies celebrating independent publishers

40 thoughts on “Hasten slowly

    1. I see you were taken with this novel too, Emma, and I too detected Eco vibes, but there was also a bit of Carlos Ruiz Zafón in there too (not read Ready Player One so can’t comment on that). Now Sloane’s follow-up looks tempting, so thank you!


  1. Am so glad you enjoyed this. Just around lockdown I think I was eyeing this one in the Bookshop and wondering about it and then I forgot all about it. Now that I’m reminded of it, I’m going to go look up a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ Lothin

    I was enjoying the characters’ names even before I got to your paragraph commenting on them, Chris! This sounds rather intriguing, and if the Kindle sample I’ve just downloaded hooks me, I see I can get a (used) paperback copy for the grand sum of £2.80!


      1. jjlothin

        Little chance of it showing its face in the charity shops in my area, but I’ve just snaffled a copy via the excellent bookfinder.com for the princely sum of £2.03 inclusive!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent recap, Jeanne, and thanks for recapturing the feeling of being drawn in willy-nilly into Sloane’s world of the imagination with all those little details.


    1. A wise decision, Ola, I’m surprised you haven’t already come across this — it was only a lucky happenstance my spotting it but it’s the sort of title I’d have thought you’d have been aware of!

      Liked by 1 person

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