Demian Katz (demiankatz) wrote,
Demian Katz

Book Review: Frank Merriwell's Backers

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been reading a lot of public domain books on my e-reader. This took me to Project Gutenberg a lot, which in turn reminded me of the Distributed Proofreaders project. Distributed Proofreaders is a site where you can help create Project Gutenberg books by proofreading computer-generated text derived from scanned page images. The more you proofread, the more advanced tasks you are allowed to perform on the site. This became an irresistible challenge, and I've now worked my way up to the rank of "post-processor." The post-processor gets to take all the individual pages edited by other members and turn them into a single coherent text. I wanted to start out with something relatively easy, and a veteran member of the site kindly provided me with a suitable candidate. That's how I met Frank Merriwell.

Frank Merriwell first appeared in the late 19th century in a publication called Tip-Top Weekly which serialized his adventures on a weekly basis. They were later compiled into longer dime novels which remained popular for decades. Frank is your typical generic hero: he is unwilling to do anything even remotely immoral (apart from shooting at people) and is unreasonably good at absolutely everything he tries. Everyone loves him (unless they're crazy or evil, in which case they still respect him), and he can do no wrong. From what I gather, the series started out as a sort of school days melodrama but went in a lot of different directions over time -- a hybrid soap opera and cliffhanger serial.

The book which I ended up with was Frank Merriwell's Backers, in which Frank tries to retain ownership of valuable mines that his enemies want to take away from him. It's essentially a Western with dusty towns and Indians and lots of shooting. I expected to find this completely unreadable, since I have no interest in the subject matter and the book is overflowing with cringe-inducing casual racism. Much to my surprise, though, I found it rather fascinating. Some of this is simple affection for a book that has become "my" project. Some of it is my collector's instinct, which finds any lengthy collection of numbered volumes interesting on some fundamental level regardless of what they contain. Quite a bit has to do with reflecting on the dramatically different standards for "wholesome boys' entertainment" that existed in 1903. But aside from all of that, there's the allure of fast-paced, action-packed junk reading.

Believe me, there is no question that this is junk -- the writing is sloppy (how many times can you include the word "ruffian" in one book?) and the characters are shallow and frequently irritating (Frank's glowing perfection is obviously ridiculous, and his friend Jack has to be one of the most annoying characters in literature thanks to his awkward pseudo-intellectual verbosity). In spite of that, it's remarkably readable -- the cliffhanger-filled serial format forces a fast pace, and things just keep moving right up to the end (which, of course, just sets you up for the next book in line). The author was no grand master of literature, but when you consider the volume of work he produced, the pace at which it was written, and the fact that its popularity endured for so long, he was obviously a skilled entertainer.

I'm obviously not desperate to find and read the next Frank Merriwell book (I can probably live the rest of my life without finding out whether or not Frank keeps his mines), but I wouldn't turn down an opportunity to work on another one, and I'm proud that my first major Distributed Proofreaders project is now available to the public on Project Gutenberg. I'll definitely continue working on other e-book projects as time permits.
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