Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Last Bookaneer

Title:  The Last Bookaneer
Author:  Matthew Pearl
Publication Information:  Penguin Press. 2015. 400 pages.
ISBN:  1594204926 / 978-1594204920

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Back in my salad days laboring for the New York Central Hudson River Railroad Company, I would always keep an eye out to see if he would enter our car before the hour of departure."

Favorite Quote:  "It's the real power of a book - not what is on the page, but what happens when a reader takes the pages in, makes it part of himself. That is the definition of literature."

Just based on the title alone, I had to read this book. Bookaneers. Literary pirates! The description intrigued me even more - Copyright laws. Rivals. Epic last heist. Race to the South Pacific. Robert Louis Stevenson. Then came the book itself.

According to the author's website, the idea for the characters came from teaching a seminar at Harvard Law School on "The Literary Vision of Copyright." In the 1700s, copyright laws were very lax if they existed at all, especially across international boundaries. Thus, manuscripts could be published without the author's content. The author got the fame, but the publishers got the money. This created an industry of book thieves - the bookaneers - who rivaled each other in trying to get manuscripts by whatever means necessary, especially from well known authors.

Bookaneering, however, was a dying profession, for on the horizon were new, stricter copyright laws. In this book, two legends of this fictitious industry - Belial and Pen Davenport - are after the same prize. Robert Louis Stevenson, who now lives on the island of Samoa, is working on a new manuscript. Both Belial and Pen Davenport view it as the final opportunity to be remembered as the greatest bookaneer. Pen Davenport brings along the bookseller Fergins as his assistant (think Sherlock Holmes and Watson). The Last Bookaneer combines the history of copyright laws, the history of Stevenson's life in Samoa with the fictional story of these thieves to create an immensely multi-layered story.

First, the book introduces Fergins as a seemingly humble, simple bookseller, with his bookstall and his book cart. He peddles books on trains, where he meets Clover, a poor waiter who loves reading but cannot afford the books. The two strike up what you might call a friendship. Chance meetings lead Clover further into Fergins life; circumstances lead Fergins to tell Clover the story of the bookaneers and their last epic heist. This first section of the book surrounds you in books and those who share the love of books. Definitely a read for book lovers.

Then comes the beginning of the story of the bookaneers. This part of the book introduces a lot of characters as the chase for the manuscript starts and travels to Samoa. We meet the bookaneers Belial and Davenport, and, in flashbacks, the story introduces another bookaneer known as Kitten. Kitten's story becomes a story within a story. In addition, an entire cast of characters surrounds Robert Louis Stevenson; his story and the history and political climate of Samoa becomes another story within this story. This section seems to move very slow; it does not move the plot forward much but rather further defines the characters and set up the environment of Samoa.

Then, the action hits, seemingly from all sides. Murder. Accidents. The rivals. The heist. Even Samoan politics. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the plot twists and turns like a roller coaster ride, bringing the reader back full circle to the role of books in our lives and our role as stewards of the knowledge contained in books. The pace of the book goes from zero to sixty and brings the reader along for a tumultuous ride with an even more shocking end.

"Books inspire a man to embrace the world or flee it. They start wars and end them. They make the men and women who write and publish them vast fortunes, and nearly as quickly can drive them into madness and despair." This book encompasses all these elements of inspiration, quests, wealth, and madness set around a memorable main character - the Last Bookaneer.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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