By Matthew Pearl, Penguin Press, April 28, 2015, 1594204926

Matthew Pearl continues to delight me by interweaving history and fiction so expertly that I look up the facts he presents to see if they are true or not. For example, he says someone telegrams from Samoa in the 1890’s. Yes, even before 1890.

The book is very readable, but it is long (400 pages). It gets dry in some spots, but it’s necessary due to the complexity of the history.

The premise of the book is that during the 1800’s publishers were arbitraging copyright law by paying bookaneers (agents) to get manuscripts and publish them in other countries. Pearl creates a hierarchy of the bookaneer’s from “barnacles” to the elite. The book is about a couple of elite who are trying to get a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s soon-to-be-finished novel. Stevenson resides in Samoa (true), and the bookaneers ventures to Samoa and after are covered. It’s told as a retelling by a bookseller and further recorded by a young man enraptured by the story. Very clever.

[k146] Books could function in two different ways, he told me one time. “They can lull us as would a dream, or they could change us, atom by atom, until we are closer to God. One way is passive, the other animating–both worthy.” “

[k383] Strangers talking over piles of books do not remain strangers for long.

[k408] Before long, I had lost my youth and my patience for indulging others.

[k533] They have been called audacious criminals, but this is not entirely accurate–the greatest bookaneers stepped into a void and helped control the chaos caused by the broken copyright laws and the maelstrom of greed that rumbles just beneath the surface world of books.

[k1448] Still, the fact that Samoans are not cannibals tends to curry great favor with foreigners.

[k1662] “Louis says if a man does not roll his smoke oneself, it is not worth smoking,” pointed out Lloyd to illuminate his fastidious cigarette-making procedure. He leaned far back in his chair and glanced languidly at us as he finished, admiring the result before resting it in his lips.

[k2107] “I was no pirate, boy,” he huffed. “I was a publisher. We have an obligation to the reader above all else to let them read.”

[k2197] “He is a friend?” “Publishers do not have friends.”

NOTE: It’s odd that Pearl characterizes publishers being the enemy of the authors when he so strongly sides with publishing interests.

[k2388] Belial shook his head. “Oh, he is dying, yes–that is obvious, no matter what he says–but that is not what his time in Upolu is about. His deepest wish is that he were not a writer.” “Why do you say that?” Belial ignored the question. “It is not when a man is at the end of his life, but when a man is at the end of his profession, that his soul shows itself. Tusitala’s soul decays and withers, and all his regrets come out that he lived a life of words rather than bravery. He will do what he can to rectify that. You have been warned.”

[k2761] Me, caught in the talons of politics! Success in the political field appears to be nothing more than the organization of failure enlivened with defamation of character.

[k3239] A man’s library opens up his character to the world.

[k3673] In fact, I would have been happy to see the copies destroyed, not only because the piratical publishers selling them were stealing from me.

NOTE: The emphasis on piracy is interesting. It seems to be where the author’s sentiments lie, and it’s a strong theme in the book that people who steal intellectual propery are pirates.

[k3689] “I am one of the foremost men of letters of the day, and you and that false missionary come here to steal the labors of my brain?” Stevenson interrupted, then swallowed down his fury. “

[k3693] “A real author would never introduce himself as an ‘author,’ Mr. Davenport. Why, if we had to walk around calling ourselves authors, remarking upon meeting a new acquaintance–‘Greetings, I’m an author. And you?’–we’d never consent to write in the first place. When I used to be asked my business, I would answer only: ‘I sling ink.’

NOTE: When asked what I do, I often say the same that am a programmer, or in technical communities, a hacker.

[k4358] When you are reduced to nothing, you make use of everything.

[k4579] In speaking to some of those spectators who attended the case religiously, I learned more of the background that had led to the man’s arrest. One of the prominent New York judges had, in an earlier position as an alderman, argued that copyright theft should be a criminal offense because it was an affront to the greatest tool possessed by mankind: the brain. This judge, a man named Salisbury, was half-English and had detested the theft of British literature by American publishers as an immoral example to the nation’s youth. Although criminal provisions were not included in the new copyright legislation that was based on the international agreement signed at Berne, Judge Salisbury convinced the city’s prosecutors to concoct a complicated bundle of charges tied with the new treaty to make an example of this notorious literary pirate: possession of stolen goods, fraud, unlawful importation of cargo, attempted larceny against the publishing firm. Copyright was just the beginning. The case of New York v. Lott would herald the start of this new era in protecting authors.

[k4651] he cautioned me that the pages of a book can influence our thinking and our actions in ways we never comprehend, and that the world of publishing has always been well aware of it. I have revered books, but now I never read a page without sensing the various demons fighting for control of the words, control of me.

[k4878] “‘I write two or three novels at a time, Fergins, with two or three more in mind at all times. They come cheaply, and you must serenade them while writing, but all novels are disappointments as soon as they leave your hands. Think of this fact: my reputation will always rest in good part on Treasure Island–Treasure Island, for goodness sake!–a book for boys written with considerably less labor and originality, and probably more than the usual unconscious plagiarism, than anything else I’ve written. I do not think it will live beyond me, though I believe Kidnapped might. But that thing I’ve just finished? Why, I’ve burned far better books that that.’ “

[k4958] People hate the idea of politicians, you see, but love the idea of authors, at least until they meet one.

[k5129] Call me quixotic, but this will revolutionize the literary inheritance we leave behind. These islands will be the New World for literature–an Eden of stories.

NOTE: I find this grandiose. There were a few places like this that might have been better to be left out although it does add to ending. There was a mention of a stonehenge-like structure at one point, which is annoying.

The Story Behind the Last Bookaneer

[k5191] Still, Stevenson, like all popular authors of his day, was affected by literary piracy throughout his career, and was keenly aware of that. “I have lost a great deal of money through the piracy of my works in America,” he wrote, “and should consider it quite fair to use any means to defeat the lower class of American publishers, who calmly appropriate one’s works as soon as they are issued.”

[k5205] As far as historical fiction goes, it fit one of my ideals: a bit of gray-area history that cannot be explored very far without the help of fiction. In this

[k5207] I applied the term bookaneer, one I had noticed had been used in a generic sense in the nineteenth century about literary piracy (the earliest use I find is in 1837 by poet Thomas Hood).