An Irishman's Diary

 

ANYBODY WHO has ever had a book published will have felt a thrill of horror at Google’s book digitisation programme. It aims to do nothing less than make available online all the books in the world, including those still covered by copyright.

Last year, the search giant reached an agreement in the US with publishers and authors to settle a number of lawsuits that charged the company with copyright infringement for the unauthorised scanning of books, and agreed to pay $125 million to create a Book Rights Registry, where authors and publishers could register works and receive compensation.

Authors and publishers would get 70 per cent from the sale of these books with Google keeping the remaining 30 per cent. The extraordinary thing is that this settlement – which comes with an opt-out clause – does not just cover US-published works, it also includes everything published in any country with which the US has a copyright agreement. The entire world, in other words.

This is clearly A Bad Thing, a monopolistic land-grab reminiscent of the United Fruit Company at its worst. And yet, and yet . . .

I was recently reading Oliver Sacks’s The Island of the Colourblind, an account of a series of visits to the Caroline Islands in the north west Pacific, and came across a reference to an Irish sailor, one James O’Connell, who spent 11 years marooned on the island of Pohnpei, in the Caroline Islands, and in 1841 published a book describing his experiences. A quick Google search retrieved the entire 255-page book, A Residence of Eleven years in New Holland and the Caroline Islands, as well as a later booklet by O’Connell on the same topic. They are both extraordinary.

By his own account, O’Connell was born in Thomas Street in Dublin in 1808, boarded out as a very young child in Monasterevin, and then taken to England, where both his mother and father performed in a circus. His story of how he came to run away to sea as a cabin-boy on board a convict transport carrying female convicts to Botany Bay is strikingly vague, and there must be some suspicion that he was a convict himself, and used the story of his subsequent work on whaling ships, and his shipwreck on Pohnpei, to cover up an escape from the prison colony. He is certainly intimately familiar with the convict system.

However he came to Pohnpei, there is no doubt that he spent a great deal of time there, and that he had plenty of nerve. After making it ashore, his description of how he danced the inhabitants out of the notion of eating him is characteristic: “I struck into Garry Owen and figured away in that famous jig to the best of my ability and agility; and my new acquaintances were amazingly delighted thereat.” No doubt about his Irishness, then.

He later became a favourite of the island’s chief, Ahoundell, and depicts in eye-watering detail the ritual full-body tattooing the chief bestowed on him. Later still, he marries the chief’s daughter, Laowe, for whom he expresses a great deal of feeling: she was “affectionate, faithful and fond of baked dogs.”

THERE IS A recurrent temptation to dismiss all of this as invention, but other aspects of the book are clearly accurate: he was the first European to call the island by its Polynesian name (he writes it as “Bonabee”), and the first to describe the ruins of Nam Madol, all that remains of a long-vanished monumental civilisation on Pohnpei.

Despite the repeated declarations of affection for the island and its people, O’Connell took the first opportunity he had to flee, fell out with the captain of the ship that rescued him and ended up in prison in Manila. From there he eventually found his way to New York, where he made a living as the Tattooed Man in PT Barnum’s American Museum. He also reprised the Garry Owen as part of his act, and takes the credit for introducing clog-dancing to America.

I have Google Books to thank for my very pleasant acquaintanceship with James O’Connell. Most people at some time have meandered in a dictionary, looking up a word, then looking up a word in the definition, then finding something else in that definition, and so on. Imagine being

able to follow threads like this at the level of books, instantly. Google’s ambition borders on the insane. It is difficult not to admire it.

If you have ever published anything, you have until September 4th to opt out of the Google agreement at www.googlebooksettlement.com Even if you haven’t, it’s worth looking at the site just to see how the whole thing will work.

  • irishroots@irishtimes.com