Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore


  • Media: #Books #Books 2020
    • Author:
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2020-08-24
    • Tags: #mystery #cryptography #fiction #extraordinary #technology
    • Rating: ★★★☆☆
    • Idea richness: ★★★★☆
    • Links: Goodreads


A nondescript design grad/nerd gets a job at a mysterious 24-hour bookstore and is drawn into the surreal world of Mr. Penumbra, a member of the Unbroken Spine: an encoded book [[!cult]] seeking immortal life by revealing the secret of their founder's original book [[!Cipher]].

Along the way, the nerd spends a lot of time talking about [[!Google]] and uses computers and the power of friendship to solve the 500 year old puzzle in a couple of months.


Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is to [[!book]]s, technology, [[!typography]] and especially [[!Google]] what Ready Player One is to films and old school games. Both revel in geekery and sending their starring, nondescript nerd on a puzzle solving quest which ticks all the pop culture boxes, occasionally to excessive amounts. However, unlike Ready Player One, Penumbra's actually has a fun and even at times delightfully surreal adventure underpinning it and does not rely entirely on said references.

Things I love...

  • Details of a surreal book cult and the bookstore mystery
  • Weird and wondrous locations like The Reading Room or the museum warehouse of moving shelves.
  • Typography based cryptography!
  • The humour picking up in the second half.

Things I didn't...

  • The writing at the start felt stilted until the internal monologue hits its stride.
  • I swear, if he says 'Googlers' one more time...
  • Seriously, curious what was up with the [[!Google]] obsession? It is like a huge deal and then dropped completely while the consequences of the attempt to crack the code never explored. It also doesn't age too well given Google's current state as one of the not-so-friendly overlords of the internet.
  • Final message of the 'power of friendship' felt like a huge letdown and kinda out of nowhere, compared to a potentially much more nuanced exploration of old and new, technology's power and failings, the need for the human element, etc. Don't get me wrong, I love a good old 'friendship is magic' adventure but Penumbra's did not feel like that to me.
  • The characters each had an interesting obsession but that does not make them well-rounded characters. Mr. Penumbra seems the most human and he doesn't actually get that much 'screentime'.
  • The love interest is classic [[!manic pixie dream girl]] and stands out all the more awkwardly against the continuing return to the other friend's obsession (and startup) focused on modeling boob physics. Yes, really. Could still be alright if it wasn't played up to occasionally disturbing levels.


A difficult one to rate. Perhaps I overhyped it in my mind but reading Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore felt like a rollercoaster of expectations. There were parts I loved and others I really did not. One act I'd be ready to rate it 4 stars and the next 2 (and then back again).

Overall, a nice quick summer read (easily consumed in an unstrenuous day) but perhaps lacking that final touch of [[!magical realism]] and weaving together of the many ideas surfaced to truly resonate.


  • The hardcover edition GLOWS IN THE DARK. Tell me that isn't amazing [[!book design]]. Sadly (but fortunately for taking these notes), I only have the [[!ebook]].

Topics to Pursue

  • Aldus Manutius - publisher right after Gutenburg
  • The Accession Table - an enormous database that tracks all artifacts in all [[!Museum]]s, everywhere.


  • “So it’s the surface that matters. People want things to be real. If you give them an excuse, they’ll believe you.”
  • "Typographers are designers; designers are my people; I am committed to supporting them. But now tells me that Gerritszoon Display, distributed by FLC Type Foundry of New York City, costs $3,989. So of course I will try to pirate this font."
  • "If fidgets were Wikipedia edits, I would have completely revamped the entry on guilt by now, and translated it into five new languages."
  • "Kat bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone."
  • "The secret library of the Unbroken Spine appears to have approximately the capacity of a regional airport bookstore."
  • "Well, that’s just great. My salary is paid by font licensing fees and copyright infringement cases."
  • “… too preoccupied with the page as a unit of analysis. Think of this book in a different way—it is a string of characters, correct? It has not two dimensions, but one. Therefore …”
  • "Turning the pages of this encoded codex, I realize that the books I love most are like open cities, with all sorts of ways to wander in. This thing is a fortress with no front gate."
  • "Why do organizations need to mark everything with their insignia? It’s like a dog peeing on every tree."
  • "When you read a book, the story definitely happens inside your head. When you listen, it seems to happen in a little cloud all around it, like a fuzzy knit cap pulled down over your eyes:"
  • "“Even though Google’s mighty computers didn’t find anything?” Deckle says. “Sure. I mean, come on. I have a computer.” He flicks a finger against the lid of his laptop and it makes the camera wobble. ==“They’re not magic. They’re only as capable as their programmers, right?”=="

Scrapbook Concepts

  • Two bookstores in one: the higher shelves dedicated to secret books of code which form a giant puzzle across volumes that members keep borrowing to study and decipher.
  • A puzzle which is solved by seeing the image the completed parts (books across different shelves) create when plotted out.
  • ==The fellowship of the Unbroken Spine== #factions
  • A secret society where people encoded their life into a book to ultimately become immortal. Book cannot be read until the author is dead. If they break rules, their book is burned. #factions
  • The Founder's Puzzle
  • Three orders: Novice, unbound, and bound.
  • ==The First Reader== #characters
  • A book with so many annotations you can barely see the paper. Margins devolve into arguments and encrypted graffiti (Could be a cool [[!Literary device]])
  • Encrypted graffiti #puzzle
  • =="6HV8SQ was here"==
  • Man dies and students fill tomb with books, everything he ever printed. But the tomb was empty. No body.
  • ==The secret library of the Unbroken Spine== #locations
  • That’s almost cute: ==Don’t forget your ruler on your first day of cult!== #idea
  • The Reading Room: with tables each with one giant book chained to it #locations
  • "Walking the stacks in a library, dragging your fingers across the spines—it’s hard not to feel the presence of sleeping spirits." "That makes me think of the codex vitae lining the walls, and suddenly I get the creeps. How many dead souls are sitting—waiting—on the shelves all around me?"--> ==A catacomb library with sleeping spirits sealed in the books== #locations
  • the Citadel of the First Wizard #locations
  • A librarian built like a linebacker, hauling huge stacks of books with ease #characters
  • ==Warehouse where shelves move on their own on wheels,== swarming in a maelstrom bringing requested items to the front. They wait for each other and team up to form caravans. Dodge through to find eye of storm. #locations
  • Friendly dragon with gold in its gullet NPC wants to cut throat for #creatures
  • A friendly ghost who releases PCs from dungeons but really just wants people to talk to and will keep follow #characters
  • A [[!Cipher]] with a Cipher key hidden in microscopic notches in a typeface. Hidden in plain site.