Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

by Robin Sloane

Since my husband’s books will be added to my ‘unreads’ it’s probably a good thing I didn’t receive too many books myself. From my father in law I received ‘Music for Torching’ by A.M. Homes and from my parents I got The Complete Works of Seamus Heaney.

I also brought back a few books from the shelves at home, as if I didn’t have enough here. I’ve already finished ‘There’s an Egg in my Soup’ as per the earlier post. I also brought ‘A Week in December’ by Sebastian Faulks, ‘Stamboul Train’ by Graham Greene, ‘When God was a Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman, ‘The Tailor and Ansty’ by Eric Cross, ‘Strumpet City’ by James Plunkett and ‘A Clash of Kings’ by George R.R. Martin. Finally, my father in law was reading ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ while waiting for us in the busiest arrival hall I’d ever witnessed and he promised to lend it to me when finished…so that is in there too.             

And now I’ll continue with the great catch up. This is how I always failed with diary writing when I was a kid. I’d start out the year filling every page and more. I felt there was an obligation to write something on every page and it should be filled. I couldn’t skip forward to the current day; the most I might write was a word or two to remind me what I needed to elaborate on when I caught up to that day. So, if anybody ever needs to consult my 1991 diary in order to write my biography, take note that in the earlier part of the year you can probably trust what has been written, but the entries for September were probably only written up in October and might be partly made up. Well I don’t have photographic memory now and I definitely did not then.

I’m currently reading and enjoying one book, but I will try to avoid progressing too far with it until I’ve finished writing about Mr Penumbra and also that other book I read.

This one I bought for my sister’s boyfriend; not the one who had me for Christkindl last year and gave me Human Traces, which lead me to rediscover my love of reading and start this blog. Not that one; the other one whom my husband had for Christkindl this year.  So technically it was a present from my husband, even if he wasn’t aware of it (though I do recall him shaking his head and saying ‘that is  such a “you” book’. I think the boyfriend was happy with the present of theatre vouchers (or at least my sister was!) but it’s always nice to give something that doesn’t fit in an envelope. Especially if somebody else can make use of it first. Ahem.

The problem with having given a book as a present it that I can’t really refer to it, pull out quotes or check character names without googling everything and then basically spending hours reading different random facts and turning my post into a mishmash of other peoples’ posts about the same book.

I enjoyed this book and I think most people who enjoy books, especially actual books and bookshops, will enjoy it too. And let us not forget the smell of books, which, if the Googlers of this novel are to be believed, is practically the only thing that will keep physical books alive. This book is nowhere near as good as The Shadow of the Wind and yet it is inevitable that people will refer to that novel and in particular the cemetery of lost books. Any book that has a secret library as a location was written for someone like me.

I wonder if there are any such things as 24 hour bookshops? I would probably live in one if it did exist. I believe that Trinity now has 24 hour libraries and I see that some libraries in Ireland will be 24 hour shortly, hopefully by the time I return. I mean, I probably wouldn’t use it too much now, but I like the idea that I could. Back in Trinity they had one 24 hour computer lab and I spent so many nights there. The rumblings of the trains above stopped well before midnight and the place got eerily quiet.

I think I was already using google back then, when did it become widespread? I remember in 1st and 2nd Year altavista was my search engine of choice. Aaaaand a quick google has confirmed that by the time I was in 4th year I was most likely on the google train. Google has survived a lot longer than the others and at times seems to be unstoppable, but as one character (Penumbra himself I think?) asks, will it be around in 100 years? The googler he is asking says yes, without hesitation. Me, I’m not so sure.

In the earlier stages of the book it seemed as if there was far too much Google product placement. Clay visits the Google campus and meets all the super intelligent Googlers. The more you read, the more it seems like they are all Stepford Wives; that they are robots who cannot see anything except how it fits into the Google sphere. (Maybe they see everything through Google tinted glasses, get it? Get it?). Obviously it is all satirical, but I wonder if any of my Googler friends have read the book and what they make of it. Most of the googlers I have met in Dublin are among the most arty people I know. They are intelligent and enthusiastic about Google products, but their intelligence does not encompass only the area of IT. We are to assume that Kat is a little bit arty, considering the fact that she matched the requirements of Clay’s ad, but that is the last mention of it really and from then on she does not seem to have much personality.

I enjoyed my visit to the Dublin Google, a much smaller version of the campus visited here. I liked the fancy themed cafes, the swings, the beanbags and games, the fact that they have regular concerts and talks… but at the end of the day it does seem like there is pressure to work long hours and working from home is a no-no. I read an article recently talking about how yahoo and Google, among others, have made working from home easier but as companies they themselves strongly discourage it. I kind of get their point though, there are times when I want to really concentrate on something and it might be easier if I was at home and could just blitz through it, but then there are times, considering I work in a team, where it makes much more sense to be in the same place.

There is a lot of notice given to the fact that Google is trying to index all books and it won’t be necessary to find paper copies any more.  I have a Google Nexus and I love it. My husband regrets getting it for me as it never seems to be far out of my hands. And yet, I haven’t read a book on it yet. I’m sure I will do that in the not too distant future, but I still don’t think it will take over for me. It’s not just about the smell, I also love flicking back and forward, that illicit look to the last page, only sometimes, being able to pass it on to a friend with a recommendation, among other things.

We do possess an ereader, a Sony ereader purchased in 2008, for all I know that model is dead and buried. It was before our great South America adventure. I bought it for my boyfriend, gave it to him just before Christmas, so he only had a few days to figure it all out. It came with about 100 classics preloaded and we went to Venezuela with that and one book each, thinking we could easily swap and pick some new ones up along the way. Boy, were we wrong! By the time we reached Rio de Janeiro 4 weeks later I was going crazy and was so happy to come across a second hand bookshop with piles of English books. We bought about ten to get us started and from then on our bags were a bit heavier and the ebook was consigned to the bottom of a rucksack. We still have it today. In a drawer.

I was probably trying to read the book too quickly in order to be able to wrap it and pass it on, but I can’t say that I got a great handle on the details of the code breaking or what they were hoping to achieve. I just went along for the ride and enjoyed it. While maybe I could have taken it a little bit more slowly I would say that it’s probably the best way to read it. If you think too much about how real certain aspects are, regarding google in particular, how it works or really how quickly a needle can be found in a haystack, then you’ll probably overthink it. I’ve seen someone mention that the characters aren’t well drawn. This is more or less true. You’re not going to come across anything much more profound than ‘books are good’.

I think years down the road, if somebody comes across this book, on a grandparent’s shelf perhaps, or stumbling across it online on whatever type or reader is in vogue, they will find it an interesting curiosity and probably laugh a little bit at what was considered ‘high tech’ way back when.


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