“Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore” (a 2012 novel by Robin Sloan) came to me just at the right time – and for that I thank my godmother! I had been looking for a new audiobook and received the recommendation just before Holy Week. The book itself is a lot of fun – a fictional story about a set of adventures by a character named Clay Jannon. Clay works in the modern-day California tech industry, but ends up taking a job at the titular bookstore. It has a very small selection of normal books up front, and then a massive set of secret shelves behind. Only an eccentric group of patrons are allowed access to this back section, and their study demands 24-hour access. Clay naturally begins to look into this mystery, and a rollicking adventure ensues.
While the tone of this book is a bit irreverent (probably a PG-13 rating), it gets into deeper themes that I think were particularly striking during Holy Week. I’d like to share two reflections on it. The first will avoid spoilers, while the second does contain some spoilers to the conclusion (I’ll put a warning before you get to that point!).
First point: Early on, Mr Penumbra explains that the secret section is for those who are committed to “reading deeply.” This was striking since during Holy Week I try to spend extra time in “lectio divina,” which refers to the prayerful reading of the Sacred Scripture. The goal in this practice is not to get through as much Scripture as possible, but to get as much out of Scripture as possible. It involves reflection, conversation with God, and openness to the voice of God speaking within us.
“Reading deeply” can also apply by analogy to what we hear or see. The challenge is not to let words simply go in one ear and out the other, but to let them take root and bear fruit. Holy Week includes many of the greatest liturgies of the year – Palm Sunday, the Chrism Mass, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday. At times our mind can be in a million places, and rather than “praying deeply,” we are just counting down the minutes until we are done. If we do this we miss out on the particular grace that the sacraments have to draw us into the mystery of redemption. Thus, “reading deeply” was a perfect piece of advice for Holy Week!
[Warning – spoilers to follow!]
Second point: The second relevant theme of the book was immortality. The readers who Clay meets at Mr Penumbra’s bookstore are seeking some hidden secret of eternal life in the “Codex Vitae” (ie, “book of life”) of the founder of their order. They believe information is encoded in the writing that will point to some key insight from medieval alchemy. Likewise, Clay’s friends in the tech world are seeking immortality through virtual reality and AI. Both groups are trying to overcome the limits of this life. They want more than a temporary reality that eventually fades away. Sloan points out a more satisfying solution than the two above, but he stops short of really asking the religious question. Is our desire for life in abundance ultimately hopeless, or are there any foundations for a hope that does not disappoint? Once again, this point is brought home powerfully in the liturgies of Holy Week. I’ll end with this reflection from the Scriptures-
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time. In this you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:3-9)