The Last Bookaneer: A Novel
Penguin Press, New York, 2015
28 April, 2015
The current debate on issues surrounding publishing, social media and global trade make The Last Bookaneer: A Novel timely and thought provoking.
Although a participant in social media – Facebook, Twitter etc – I have for some time wondered about the impact this free flow of information is having on the concept of copyright.
It seems to me that social media, undermines what I believe to be the key element of copyright – the ownership of ideas. At the same time, global trade agreements currently being formulated in secret are changing the way rights to the ownership of ideas are governed.
Matthew Pearl has used an intriguing story set in the late 19th Century and based around author Robert Louis Stevenson to examine the fundamental nature of the meaning of the ownership of ideas and the conflict with trade.
The bookaneers are said to have traded in literary works of all kinds – from the latest manuscript stolen from printers to filched covers and maps. Through the novel, it emerges that bookaneers have their origins in the first American laws to govern copyright, said to have been “passed in 1790 by high-minded and arrogant legislators (the usual politicians, in other words), which caused other countries to retaliate by withdrawing protection for American works.”
This opened the doors to “various kinds of pirates and black markets” in spite of publishers’ best efforts to shut the doors. As noted by one of the protagonists, “…you will find in life that greed for profits is too strong for even good men to resist.”
The artistry of this book is how it reads as though written in the Stevenson era. The competing bookaneers’ global search for Stevenson’s final manuscript takes them to Tahiti, where their thirst for glory turns dark and deadly. The language of the colonial era underscores what would today be seen as the jarringly inappropriate descriptions of the people encountered in the Pacific.
Text books will be written in future about the changes to copyright and the book trade in the current era. It is to be hoped an ingenious writer such as Pearl is also able to tell the story. He has delved into the minds of the creative and the grasping in an inventive and thoughtful manner.