A bookaneer is someone who steals the works of authors to make them readily available to the reading public, thereby insuring that they are not rationed by cost or availability or by the haphazard selections made by publishers, booksellers and authors. Some are motivated by profit and some by the written word and the need to present those ideas to the greater world at large. They believe their cause is noble and do not view it as stealing. They are a dying breed of men as copyright laws are soon to be passed which will put an end to their so-called profession.
In the last decade of the 19th century, Clover was a young man of 20 who worked on the railroad. He became friendly with a bookseller named Mr. Fergins. Fergins was an Englishman who sold books from a cart that he wheeled through the train for the passengers’ and employees’ enjoyment. Mr. Clover was a reader, and he looked forward to his visits, anticipating them with great expectation. He often borrowed books from him, returning them when the bookseller reappeared on another train. For the information of the reader, Clover is a man of color and there are some comments regarding discrimination, throughout the book, but Fergins in this regard is totally without blame.
One day, while walking in New York City, Clover encountered the bookseller. Mr. Fergins was on his way to the courthouse where he had an appointment. Clover kept him company, but when he got there, he witnessed something in the courtroom which piqued his curiosity about the bookseller and which gnawed at his memory even afterwards. Clover overheard a prisoner speak to the bookseller in a strange tongue. When he asked hiim what the bedraggled prisoner had said to him, he claimed ignorance and shortly disappeared without a word, leaving Fergins wondering what he was doing there, especially when he did not return.
This brief scene leads to a conversation with the bookseller, at a later date, in which Fergins confesses to Mr. Clover about how he came to know the prisoner and explains what he was doing in the courtroom. When Fergins was a younger man, he had a book stall from which he sold books. Because of that, he came in contact with many men involved in stealing the words of authors, men called bookaneers. One such bookaneer, one of the best, lures him into an adventure to find the last manuscript that Robert Lewis Stevenson will ever write, in an effort to spirit it away and allow it to be published for the general public’s enjoyment. He does not believe he is doing this for profit, but rather for altruistic desires; he is doing it for mankind. Fergins is seduced to travel to Samoa with Mr. Davenport, the bookaneer, and it is a wild journey that takes the tale to its conclusion which, I think, will be a surprise for every reader.
Many famous authors are mentioned in the narrative, as are their works, while the two of them pursue the manuscript that is at that moment being written. They are competing with another famous bookaneer, named Belial, who worked at this simply for profit, not altruism, and their parallel experiences create havoc and danger in their lives. It was interesting to read about how cold-blooded these bookaneers could be when they searched for material to steal and also to read many tidbits about Stevenson’s way of life on the Island of Samoa.
Stevenson was a frail man in failing health. He was actually on the island because of its recuperative powers. His wife Fanny was with him as were her two children, Lloyd and Belle. The two, Fergins and Clover, ingratiated themselves with the family, playing roles that hid their true purpose for being on the island. The bookaneer took on another identity, calling himself Mr. Porter, a writer of travel books, while Mr. Fergins retained his true name and identity as a bookseller. Eventually, when they are invited to stay at Mr. Stevenson’s home, they proceed to do their dirty work under the guise of other pursuits. Tragedy and punishments are meted out carelessly in Samoa and they are both witnesses to and subjects of both.
For some odd reason, Mr. Fergins did not resent the bookaneers, though he should have since they competed with him, and largely resented him as a provider of selected reading materials for those who could pay for them, and also because they were decidedly dishonest. He neither condemned nor accepted them, but rather he admired their efforts to put a greater variety of books into the hands of the many, even if their ways were unscrupulous. He seemed to truly love books. In the end, the reader will wonder if he truly did, will wonder about his real nature and purpose, will wonder about Mr. Davenport’s ultimate end, and will also wonder about Mr. Clover’s reaction to the story Mr. Fergins told him about the path of his life. The reader may also raise their eyes in surprise at the conclusion and ultimate revelations.
*On a current note: it would appear with the current controversy over Amazon’s online bookselling practices, that there is still a competitive atmosphere among the readers, the authors, the publishers and the booksellers. Is the author the ultimate loser in the end, when readers are either provided with the material for free or at low cost? Are they better off when some readers are eliminated from the reading pool because of a lack of access to books or because of too high a cost? Is price control the answer? Who should make more money, the publisher, the author or the bookseller? If the booksellers are the bottom rung of this ladder, they will bear all of the carrying charges for those above them, as well as their own. Will they survive? It doesn’t bode well for them, right now; how will it bode in the future? In the end, will it be the reader that suffers the most from a lack of material or from a spate of material with only the point of view the publishers wish to promote? Who will be able to bear the cost of selling books? Will we all be subjected to skewed information because it is so controlled by the profit motive? It is quite the conundrum!