STARRED REVIEW
May 2015

Manuscript madness

By Matthew Pearl
It’s late in the 19th century, and literary works are often plundered by so-called “bookaneers.” These literary pirates swoop in, abscond with a manuscript and sell it to the highest bidder. The stories should be property of the reader, not the writer, the bookaneers argue. And they’ll stop at nothing to ensure it.
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It’s late in the 19th century, and literary works are often plundered by so-called “bookaneers.” These literary pirates swoop in, abscond with a manuscript and sell it to the highest bidder. The stories should be property of the reader, not the writer, the bookaneers argue. And they’ll stop at nothing to ensure it.

In The Last Bookaneer, bookseller Mr. Fergins recounts to railway waiter and enthusiastic reader Mr. Cotton the fascinating exploits of these bookish pirates. Fergins first encountered such a man, Wild Bill, when the bookaneer slipped a pirated manuscript into Fergins’ hands. The next day, a patron picked up the book and left Fergins with entirely too much money.

His curiosity piqued, Fergins eagerly follows the money trail of Bill’s subsequent requests. Before long, it leads Fergins to one of the greatest bookaneers of the age, Pen Davenport, who has his eye on his biggest mark yet: Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of Treasure Island. The ailing writer is sequestered in Samoa, and so the pair of pirates set sail in hopes of retrieving treasure. But Davenport’s nemesis is close at hand and time is running out: A new copyright treaty is set to go into effect on July 1, 1890, and manuscripts will no longer be fair game.

The Last Bookaneer is a rollicking romp in which the publishing industry is depicted as a business as scintillating as mining for gold. Equal parts adventure on the South Seas and literary fiction set in civilized and cerebral England, this story is chock full of sly remarks skewering the publishing industry. The questions of intellectual property faced in the 1890s are just as complex and engaging as those we encounter in today’s technological world. As in his previous work (The Dante Club, The Last Dickens), Matthew Pearl seamlessly braids fact and fiction into an imaginative yarn that will enthrall bibliophiles and adventure fans alike.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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The Last Bookaneer

The Last Bookaneer

By Matthew Pearl
Penguin
ISBN 9781594204920

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