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Where Our Notion of Pirates Comes From

Treasure Island (Enriched Classics)Treasure Island (Enriched Classics) by Robert Louis Stevenson

Reviewed by Doug Brown

Treasure Island is a really fun book. Maybe I feel that way partly because I read it immediately after Dante's Inferno, which is not a really fun book. But, I don't think so. Stevenson's tale is just as entertaining today as in 1883. Mysterious plots, mutinies, treasure maps, sailing ships, and pirates: it's all here.
It's interesting how many of today's pirate cliches were invented in this book. Long John Silver was the original peg-leg pirate with a parrot on his shoulder. The "Black Spot" on the palm as a pirate curse, treasure maps where X marks the spot, and pirates who say "Shiver me timbers" all originated with Treasure Island. Plus, did you know that Stevenson made up the now standard pirate shanty "Fifteen men on the dead man's chest/Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum"? None of Stevenson's pirates say "Arrr," though. That was invented by Hollywood, and mostly popularized by Robert Newton as Long John Silver in Disney's 1950 film of Treasure Island. Hollywood also invented the notion of Jim Hawkins as a young boy -- in the book he's a teenager who holds his own in swashbuckling skirmishes.
Stevenson didn't create the genre of pirate books; there were previous books he was influenced by. However, his rollicking prose and imagination has rightly placed Treasure Island firmly in the classics pantheon. If you'll pardon the chestnut, this one is for children of all ages. It almost reads too fast; I felt like I'd just started when I finished the book. If you're looking for something quick and fun to wash down whatever you're reading now, Treasure Island is warmly recommended summer reading.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Treasure Island (Enriched Classics) Used Mass Market $3.50
  2. Inferno (Vintage Classics) New Trade Paper $12.75

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