Boyd Tonkin: Pirate raids on the treasures of the past

The Week In Books

After his decade as a uniquely hard-working Poet Laureate, with a stack of other time-draining commitments, Andrew Motion deserves to have some fun – and to make a splash. He will soon do both. With a fanfare (or a raucous grog-breathed cheer) Cape has announced that Motion will in 2012 publish a sequel to one of the world's best-loved books: Return to Treasure Island.

Like every other classic of its time, Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate adventure has not lacked follow-ups. Around half a dozen variations and spin-offs appeared between Harold Calahan's in 1933 and Frank Delaney's in 2001. As for filmed hommages, I fondly imagine the day on which Johnny Depp (in Jack Sparrow rig) kneels in gratitude before a two-faced South Sea idol that bears the likenesses of both Keith Richards and RLS himself.

Here's a toast to Sir Andrew: good fortune to ye, squire (supply the accent yourself). But, without wishing to raise a black sail on the horizon, the project (like many of its kind) tells us something not entirely welcome about publishing today. Roughly between the date of Treasure Island (1883) and John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), writers in Britain produced an astonishing wealth of narratives which fast acquired the status and the staying-power of myth. From Stevenson's own The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray to HG Wells's The Time Machine, The Invisible Man or The Island of Dr Moreau, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, not to mention children's stalwarts such as Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books or JM Barrie's Peter Pan, tales from this three-decade span became part of the storytelling DNA of the planet as a whole. Indeed, one of the finest interpreters of these recurring dreams is the Argentinian-born, French-resident Canadian citizen Alberto Manguel. And this generation deeply marked Manguel's own mentor: Jorge-Luis Borges.

Often but not always at novella length, the yarns of this period still cast an unbreakable spell. I have tried for years to puzzle out just why this should be so. Discoverers of new worlds - within or without, in the outposts of empire or the depths of the psyche - these writers fused supreme narrative artistry with a certain innocence (yes, even in Wilde's or James's case) that fortified their works' unconscious power.

Or rather, even the most sophisticated author could via the devices of adventure or fantasy at this time manage to sidestep the censoring intellect and gain access to the treasures of fable. However challenging in terms of sex (Wilde) or politics (Conrad), these classics have a fairy-tale logic and momentum that binds them to our earliest experience of stories. One of the joys of AS Byatt's The Children's Book, set in this era and featuring a writer of darkly magical tales, is its exploration of the roots of this modern myth-kitty.

The Cape publisher Dan Franklin reports about Motion's sequel that "I don't think I have seen such enthusiasm for a book proposal from every department of the company". That should give us pause. Publishers should surely jump for joy when they unearth fresh successors to Stevenson, Conrad and Wells, rather than stake too much of their future on a repeat voyage to an already-blessed destination.

For more than a century, the literary world has pirated and plundered the pure narrative gold buried in this age. Just a fraction of the time now spent on digital blather should instead go into trying to understand why these tales struck so deep and endured so long. What accounts for their timeless and global grip? Where would such archetypal yarns take shape these days? Who would write them, and how? Otherwise we're left with many more than 15 book-biz men and women dancing on the dead men's chest: Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Evian, please.

P.S.For all its platitudes and bromides, the government review of library modernisation issued this week as a pre-election parting shot by culture minister Margaret Hodge (left) does have some good news. In defiance of the trend among adults, book-borrowing by children has risen sharply over the past five years after hitting a low around 2003-4. The proportion of 11-15 year-olds using a library has also grown, from 70 to nearly 80 per cent. The review offers some sound ideas for keeping this cohort loyal to the library and (despite cheap headlines) it's not all about free net-surfing and chai lattes on site. But why, in that creepy corporate New Labour way, does the sensible section on online provision bow down to "the mass digitisation of content by Google" as if referring to the weather? This is a rights seizure contested in the courts, not some act of God.

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