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The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates

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Overview

Pack your cutlass and blunderbuss—it's time to go a-pirating! The Invisible Hook takes readers inside the wily world of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century pirates. With swashbuckling irreverence and devilish wit, Peter Leeson uncovers the hidden economics behind pirates' notorious, entertaining, and sometimes downright shocking behavior. Why did pirates fly flags of Skull & Bones? Why did they create a "pirate code"? Were pirates really ferocious madmen? And what made them so successful? The Invisible Hook uses economics to examine these and other infamous aspects of piracy. Leeson argues that the pirate customs we know and love resulted from pirates responding rationally to prevailing economic conditions in the pursuit of profits.

The Invisible Hook looks at legendary pirate captains like Blackbeard, Black Bart Roberts, and Calico Jack Rackam, and shows how pirates' search for plunder led them to pioneer remarkable and forward-thinking practices. Pirates understood the advantages of constitutional democracy—a model they adopted more than fifty years before the United States did so. Pirates also initiated an early system of workers' compensation, regulated drinking and smoking, and in some cases practiced racial tolerance and equality. Leeson contends that pirates exemplified the virtues of vice—their self-seeking interests generated socially desirable effects and their greedy criminality secured social order. Pirates proved that anarchy could be organized.

Revealing the democratic and economic forces propelling history's most colorful criminals, The Invisible Hook establishes pirates' trailblazing relevance to the contemporary world.

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Editorial Reviews

Ethical Corporation Magazine
[A]n eye-opener. . . . The Invisible Hook is a gripping read that sheds as much light on 21st century economics . . . as it does on 17th and 18th century piracy.
Choice
Given the flurry of piracy off the Somali coast in 2009, this relatively short narrative could not be timelier. The Invisible Hook, a play on Adam Smith's famous 'invisible hand,' is an engaging, informative look at the economics of piracy and pirates.
New Yorker - Caleb Crain
A brisk, clever new book, The Invisible Hook, by Peter T. Leeson, an economist who claims to have owned a pirate skull ring as a child and to have had supply-and-demand curves tattooed on his right biceps when he was seventeen, offers a different approach. Rather than directly challenging pirates' leftist credentials, Leeson says that their apparent espousal of liberty, equality, and fraternity derived not from idealism but from a desire for profit.
London Review of Books - Stephen Sedley
[S]urprising and engaging . . . . [Leeson's] seminars must be wildly popular.
Economix blog - Edward Glaeser
Mr. Leeson's book represents a serious attempt to use the tools of economics to make sense of the institutions of piracy. The book is another example of economic imperialism, the use of economics to make sense of real world phenomena that are outside the standard realm of economic science. It addresses an important force that did, and does, impact world trade. But as the skull and crossbones on its spine suggests, the book is also just fun. . . . [T]he book manages to be entertaining and informative. It is a fun read and provides parents with something to teach their children while looking for pirate treasure left long ago at the beach.
Freakonomics blog - Steven D. Levitt
The Invisible Hook is an excellent book by one of the most creative young economists around.
Washington Times - Claude Berube
Peter T. Leeson has done his part to dispel the pirate myths by using economic theory to explain pirate behavior and organization in his exemplary new book. . . . Mr. Leeson has produced a fresh perspective on an old topic. . . . The Invisible Hook is quick-paced but thought-provoking. Based on this work, the reader should look forward to more books by the author.
Times - Daniel Finkelstein
Piracy has not been Leeson's only obsession. The other has been economics. When he was 17 years old he had supply and demand curves tattooed on his right bicep . . . now the professor has brought his two enthusiasms together in a wonderful (and wonderfully titled) new book. The Invisible Hook is his study of the hidden economics of piracy.
Financial Times - Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
Jauntily characterising the typical pirate ship as akin to 'a Fortune 500 company', [Leeson] reorients pirates as precursors of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics.
Nature - Michael Shermer
From countless films and books we all know that, historically, pirates were criminally insane, traitorous thieves, torturers and terrorists. Anarchy was the rule, and the rule of law was nonexistent. Not so, dissents George Mason University economist Peter Leeson in his myth-busting book, The Invisible Hook, which shows how the unseen hand of economic exchange produces social cohesion even among pirates.
San Francisco Chronicle - J. Peter Pham
Peter Leeson, an economics professor at George Mason University, offers a fascinating perspective into the world of Blackbeard, 'Black Bart' Roberts and 'Calico Jack' Rackham in his highly readable book The Invisible Hook.
Mother Jones - Kevin Canfield
An engaging and thorough portrait of high seas banditry that goes beyond the pop-culture stereotypes to argue that though often brutal and always mercenary, pirates were ahead of their time when it came to matters of economic fairness and progressive labor practices.
Times Higher Education - Michelle Baddeley
[I]n The Invisible Hook, Peter Leeson deftly explodes piratical myths . . . . [The Invisible Hook] offers many colourful, meticulously researched insights into the behaviour of some of history's most colourful anti-heroes, and it will appeal to anyone with even passing interests in history, politics, sociology and/or economics.
The Age - Leon Gettler
Leeson says history cannot explain all piratical paradoxes. Only economics can disentangle the different strands.
Barron's - Lewis Perdue
Leeson hangs the meat of his pirate tale on a sturdy skeleton of economics. . . . The Invisible Hook is a delightful read, thanks to Leeson's engaging writing. He reduces a veritable mountain of facts and history into an entertainingly educational experience.
Foreword Magazine - Karl Helicher
This engaging account is fun to read and full of humor, qualities not often associated with an explanation of economic theory. . . . This reviewer speculates that if more economic texts were written like this one, there would be a glut of economics majors to compensate for the shortage of pirates roaming the Atlantic.
Reason - Katherine Mangu-Ward
Peter T. Leeson digs into the dollars and cents of piracy. He urges us to see pirates as economic actors, their behavior shaped by incentives, just like the rest of us. Once you're in an economic state of mind, you can begin to understand actions such as lighting one's beard on fire, voting, being decent to black people, and torturing captives 'for fun'—all equally nutty behaviors to the average 18th—century observer. When Leeson is done guiding you through the pirate world, life on a rogue ship starts to look less like a Carnival cruise with cutlasses and cannons and more like an ongoing condo association meeting at sea.
Open Democracy - Daniele Archibugi
Cleverly written and witty. . . . [Casts] a penetrating glance at the social and political motives of these odd outlaw communities.
Tampa Bay Tribune - Roger K. Miller
Delightful. . . . Examines the hidden order behind the literal anarchy of pirates. . . . Entertaining and educational.
Regulation Magazine - David R. Henderson
What possible connection could there be between economics and a book on piracy? A lot, it turns out. Peter Leeson explains this seemingly bizarre connection in page after page of his witty new book, The Invisible Hook.
Orange County Register - Alan W. Bock
[Offers] not only a thumbnail history of piracy but important insights into the economic way of thinking. . . . Fascinating, entertaining and educational.
Canberra Times - Stephen Saunders
The book wittily demonstrates that economic theories and principles, if not the be-all and end-all, can illuminate notable historical trends.
Sports Business Journal - Bill Sutton
This is an enjoyable read that discusses the management style, branding, employee recruitment and retention, compensation and incentives and strategic planning of pirates and why these systems were effective. There are some valuable lessons to be learned.
IPA Reviews - Tim Wilson
Peter Leeson's The Invisible Hook argues that many of the founding principles of capitalist, liberal democracies are not rooted in the Glorious Revolution or the writing of the Declaration of Independence; but the incentive structures necessary to keep a group of rowdy ocean-bound outlaws working as a team of ruthless sea bandits.
Las Vegas Weekly - Rick Lax
It's Freakonomics meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack Hirshleifer meets Jack Sparrow. Fischer Black meets Blackbeard. Adam Smith meets Captain Hook. . . . Peter Leeson claims, 'A pirate ship more closely resembled a Fortune 500 company than the society of savage schoolchildren depicted in William Golding's Lord of the Flies.' And by the end of the book, he had me convinced of it.
Democracy - Jonathan Stevenson
Peter T. Leeson . . . puts salty flesh on the bones of the pirates' legend in The Invisible Hook, pulling off the formidable trick of being both rigorous and cheeky. . . . Leeson's lights . . . are bright and convincing. . . . [A] jaunty gem of a book. . . . [H]is argument assuredly does bolster the Chicago School case that the dismal science pervades every human endeavor.
Journal of World Trade Review - Douglas Marcouiller
Leeson's book is stimulating, provocative, and, of course, a fun read.
Eighteenth-Century Studies - Philip Smallwood
For those who are interested in a quick course in free-market political economy, or in a fresh approach to the history of piracy, The Invisible Hook provides many pleasures and provocations.
Southern Economic Journal - Andrew Young
The Invisible Hook is certainly a worthwhile read for various audiences. It can serve as an effective introduction to several key economic concepts with pirate society serving as an excellent vehicle for grabbing a reader's interest. This book would be an ideal supplemental reading for undergraduate principles of microeconomics or economic history classes. . . . The book can also be valuable to any historian of piracy seeking a uniquely economics-based perspective on their subject.
International Journal of Maritime History - Mark G. Hanna
[Leeson] clearly is . . . an undoubtedly excellent teacher, because the style and tone of the book are that of an engaging lecturer who makes economics entertaining for his undergraduate students.
Journal of Value Inquiry - Francis J. DiTraglia
[T]here is much to be learned from Blackbeard and his compatriots: social order can arise without explicit design, and economics provides a powerful set of ideas for understanding how. This is the central idea of The Invisible Hook, and part of the reason why it is among the best popular works of economics in recent years.
Comparative Political Studies - Anthony Gill
I guarantee that after the first few pages you won't be able to put this book down, and you will come away with a set of refreshing insights that you may very well find relevant to your own research agenda. . . . To put it bluntly, this book is a must read, or at least a 'should read,' for comparative political scientists, particularly those with a taste for the world of economics. . . . Leeson should at least get a couple doubloons of your hard-earned booty.
Central European Journal of International and Security Studies - Mitchell A. Belfer
The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, stands out as a novel contribution to international economics and, by extension, international relations.
Public Choice - Bruce L. Benson
The Invisible Hook is a great read. I recommend it without hesitation to professional academics, students, anyone interested in a clear exposition of the economic way of thinking, and every scurvy dog who is interested in pirating.
From the Publisher
"It's Freakonomics meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack Hirshleifer meets Jack Sparrow. Fischer Black meets Blackbeard. Adam Smith meets Captain Hook. . . . Peter Leeson claims, 'A pirate ship more closely resembled a Fortune 500 company than the society of savage schoolchildren depicted in William Golding's Lord of the Flies.' And by the end of the book, he had me convinced of it."—Rick Lax, Las Vegas Weekly

"Leave it to an economist to take our current obsession [with pirates] and peer under it in search of a new interpretation. . . . The Invisible Hook is an entertaining economic history of an era and a way of business rarely considered in such a way. Pirates were rational!"MIT Sloan Management Review

"Peter T. Leeson . . . puts salty flesh on the bones of the pirates' legend in The Invisible Hook, pulling off the formidable trick of being both rigorous and cheeky. . . . Leeson's lights . . . are bright and convincing. . . . [A] jaunty gem of a book. . . . [H]is argument assuredly does bolster the Chicago School case that the dismal science pervades every human endeavor."—Jonathan Stevenson, Democracy

"Leeson's book is stimulating, provocative, and, of course, a fun read."—Douglas Marcouiller, Journal of World Trade Review

"For those who are interested in a quick course in free-market political economy, or in a fresh approach to the history of piracy, The Invisible Hook provides many pleasures and provocations."—Philip Smallwood, Eighteenth-Century Studies

"The Invisible Hook is certainly a worthwhile read for various audiences. It can serve as an effective introduction to several key economic concepts with pirate society serving as an excellent vehicle for grabbing a reader's interest. This book would be an ideal supplemental reading for undergraduate principles of microeconomics or economic history classes. . . . The book can also be valuable to any historian of piracy seeking a uniquely economics-based perspective on their subject."—Andrew Young, Southern Economic Journal

"[Leeson] clearly is . . . an undoubtedly excellent teacher, because the style and tone of the book are that of an engaging lecturer who makes economics entertaining for his undergraduate students."—Mark G. Hanna, International Journal of Maritime History

"[T]here is much to be learned from Blackbeard and his compatriots: social order can arise without explicit design, and economics provides a powerful set of ideas for understanding how. This is the central idea of The Invisible Hook, and part of the reason why it is among the best popular works of economics in recent years."—Francis J. DiTraglia, Journal of Value Inquiry

"I guarantee that after the first few pages you won't be able to put this book down, and you will come away with a set of refreshing insights that you may very well find relevant to your own research agenda. . . . To put it bluntly, this book is a must read, or at least a 'should read,' for comparative political scientists, particularly those with a taste for the world of economics. . . . Leeson should at least get a couple doubloons of your hard-earned booty."—Anthony Gill, Comparative Political Studies

"The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, stands out as a novel contribution to international economics and, by extension, international relations."—Mitchell A. Belfer, Central European Journal of International and Security Studies

"Well shiver me timbers, this surely is a wickedly good book! In fact, Peter Leeson has produced a book applying the dismal science that is both fun to read, and entertaining. Arrgh-uably, it also has more economic relevance than 95 percent of the articles in mainstream economics journals. Furthermore, it is accessible to virtually any reader."—Bruce L. Benson, Public Choice

"With all the books on these colorful criminals, Leeson's is the only one to focus on the economic side of the matter. That is his great advantage."Bibliotheque d'Humanisme et Renaissance

"The Invisible Hook is a great read. I recommend it without hesitation to professional academics, students, anyone interested in a clear exposition of the economic way of thinking, and every scurvy dog who is interested in pirating."—Bruce L. Benson, Public Choice

MIT Sloan Management Review
Leave it to an economist to take our current obsession [with pirates] and peer under it in search of a new interpretation. . . . The Invisible Hook is an entertaining economic history of an era and a way of business rarely considered in such a way. Pirates were rational!
Bibliotheque d'Humanisme et Renaissance
With all the books on these colorful criminals, Leeson's is the only one to focus on the economic side of the matter. That is his great advantage.
Seeking Alpha
[W]ell-documented and very readable . . . covers pirates from bow to stern. In addition to some descriptions of high seas navigation, maneuvers and stealth that border on high adventure, Leeson supplies plenty of counterintuitive, even surprising, revelations about pirates. . . . And Leeson explains it all with economics. . . . Bottom line: Peter T. Leeson's The Invisible Hook is an insightful hoot, and scores a couple of extra points for originality. Economics-minded readers who enjoy historical adventure or relish over-the-top 'freakonomics' should get a hearty yo-ho-ho out of this book. Not to mention a 360-degree brain twist before diving into that new Michael Crichton novel.
Publishers Weekly

Economist Leeson leads readers though a surprisingly entertaining crash course in economics in this study of high seas piracy at the turn of the 18th century. Far from being the bloodthirsty fiends portrayed in popular culture, pirates created a harmonious social order; through the application of rational choice theory, the author explains how a common pursuit of individual self-interest led pirates to create self-regulating, democratic societies aboard their ships, complete with checks and balances, more than half a century before the American and French revolutions brought such models to state-level governance. Understanding the profit motive that guided pirates' actions reveals why pirates so cruelly tortured the crews of ships that resisted boarding, yet treated those who surrendered readily with the utmost respect. Both practices worked to minimize costs to the pirate crew by discouraging resistance that could lead to loss of life and limb for pirates and damage to either the pirates' ship or the cargo aboard. Illustrated with salty tales of pirates both famous and infamous, the book rarely bogs down even when explaining intricate economic concepts, making it a great introduction to both pirate history and economic theory. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Canberra Times
The book wittily demonstrates that economic theories and principles, if not the be-all and end-all, can illuminate notable historical trends.
— Stephen Saunders
The Age
Leeson says history cannot explain all piratical paradoxes. Only economics can disentangle the different strands.
— Leon Gettler
Journal of World Trade Review
Leeson's book is stimulating, provocative, and, of course, a fun read.
— Douglas Marcouiller
Eighteenth-Century Studies
For those who are interested in a quick course in free-market political economy, or in a fresh approach to the history of piracy, The Invisible Hook provides many pleasures and provocations.
— Philip Smallwood
Southern Economic Journal
The Invisible Hook is certainly a worthwhile read for various audiences. It can serve as an effective introduction to several key economic concepts with pirate society serving as an excellent vehicle for grabbing a reader's interest. This book would be an ideal supplemental reading for undergraduate principles of microeconomics or economic history classes. . . . The book can also be valuable to any historian of piracy seeking a uniquely economics-based perspective on their subject.
— Andrew Young
International Journal of Maritime History
[Leeson] clearly is . . . an undoubtedly excellent teacher, because the style and tone of the book are that of an engaging lecturer who makes economics entertaining for his undergraduate students.
— Mark G. Hanna
San Francisco Chronicle
Peter Leeson, an economics professor at George Mason University, offers a fascinating perspective into the world of Blackbeard, 'Black Bart' Roberts and 'Calico Jack' Rackham in his highly readable book The Invisible Hook.
— J. Peter Pham
Mother Jones
An engaging and thorough portrait of high seas banditry that goes beyond the pop-culture stereotypes to argue that though often brutal and always mercenary, pirates were ahead of their time when it came to matters of economic fairness and progressive labor practices.
— Kevin Canfield
Times Higher Education
[I]n The Invisible Hook, Peter Leeson deftly explodes piratical myths . . . . [The Invisible Hook] offers many colourful, meticulously researched insights into the behaviour of some of history's most colourful anti-heroes, and it will appeal to anyone with even passing interests in history, politics, sociology and/or economics.
— Michelle Baddeley
Barron's
Leeson hangs the meat of his pirate tale on a sturdy skeleton of economics. . . . The Invisible Hook is a delightful read, thanks to Leeson's engaging writing. He reduces a veritable mountain of facts and history into an entertainingly educational experience.
— Lewis Perdue
Foreword Magazine
This engaging account is fun to read and full of humor, qualities not often associated with an explanation of economic theory. . . . This reviewer speculates that if more economic texts were written like this one, there would be a glut of economics majors to compensate for the shortage of pirates roaming the Atlantic.
— Karl Helicher
Reason
Peter T. Leeson digs into the dollars and cents of piracy. He urges us to see pirates as economic actors, their behavior shaped by incentives, just like the rest of us. Once you're in an economic state of mind, you can begin to understand actions such as lighting one's beard on fire, voting, being decent to black people, and torturing captives 'for fun'—all equally nutty behaviors to the average 18th—century observer. When Leeson is done guiding you through the pirate world, life on a rogue ship starts to look less like a Carnival cruise with cutlasses and cannons and more like an ongoing condo association meeting at sea.
— Katherine Mangu-Ward
Open Democracy
Cleverly written and witty. . . . [Casts] a penetrating glance at the social and political motives of these odd outlaw communities.
— Daniele Archibugi
Tampa Bay Tribune
Delightful. . . . Examines the hidden order behind the literal anarchy of pirates. . . . Entertaining and educational.
— Roger K. Miller
Regulation Magazine
What possible connection could there be between economics and a book on piracy? A lot, it turns out. Peter Leeson explains this seemingly bizarre connection in page after page of his witty new book, The Invisible Hook.
— David R. Henderson
Orange County Register
[Offers] not only a thumbnail history of piracy but important insights into the economic way of thinking. . . . Fascinating, entertaining and educational.
— Alan W. Bock
London Review of Books
[S]urprising and engaging . . . . [Leeson's] seminars must be wildly popular.
— Stephen Sedley
NYTimes.com
Mr. Leeson's book represents a serious attempt to use the tools of economics to make sense of the institutions of piracy. The book is another example of economic imperialism, the use of economics to make sense of real world phenomena that are outside the standard realm of economic science. It addresses an important force that did, and does, impact world trade. But as the skull and crossbones on its spine suggests, the book is also just fun. . . . [T]he book manages to be entertaining and informative. It is a fun read and provides parents with something to teach their children while looking for pirate treasure left long ago at the beach.
— Edward Glaeser, Economix blog
New Yorker
A brisk, clever new book, The Invisible Hook, by Peter T. Leeson, an economist who claims to have owned a pirate skull ring as a child and to have had supply-and-demand curves tattooed on his right biceps when he was seventeen, offers a different approach. Rather than directly challenging pirates' leftist credentials, Leeson says that their apparent espousal of liberty, equality, and fraternity derived not from idealism but from a desire for profit.
— Caleb Crain
Economix blog
Mr. Leeson's book represents a serious attempt to use the tools of economics to make sense of the institutions of piracy. The book is another example of economic imperialism, the use of economics to make sense of real world phenomena that are outside the standard realm of economic science. It addresses an important force that did, and does, impact world trade. But as the skull and crossbones on its spine suggests, the book is also just fun. . . . [T]he book manages to be entertaining and informative. It is a fun read and provides parents with something to teach their children while looking for pirate treasure left long ago at the beach.
— Edward Glaeser
Washington Times
Peter T. Leeson has done his part to dispel the pirate myths by using economic theory to explain pirate behavior and organization in his exemplary new book. . . . Mr. Leeson has produced a fresh perspective on an old topic. . . . The Invisible Hook is quick-paced but thought-provoking. Based on this work, the reader should look forward to more books by the author.
— Claude Berube
Times
Piracy has not been Leeson's only obsession. The other has been economics. When he was 17 years old he had supply and demand curves tattooed on his right bicep . . . now the professor has brought his two enthusiasms together in a wonderful (and wonderfully titled) new book. The Invisible Hook is his study of the hidden economics of piracy.
— Daniel Finkelstein
Financial Times
Jauntily characterising the typical pirate ship as akin to 'a Fortune 500 company', [Leeson] reorients pirates as precursors of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school of economics.
— Ludovic Hunter-Tilney
Nature
One of the finest introductory courses in economics since Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson. . . . The Invisible Hook is a good addition to the genre of popular economics: a fun and enlightening read, and rock solid in its scholarly bona fides.
— Michael Shermer
Scientific American
From countless films and books we all know that, historically, pirates were criminally insane, traitorous thieves, torturers and terrorists. Anarchy was the rule, and the rule of law was nonexistent. Not so, dissents George Mason University economist Peter Leeson in his myth-busting book, The Invisible Hook, which shows how the unseen hand of economic exchange produces social cohesion even among pirates.
— Michael Shermer
Sports Business Journal
This is an enjoyable read that discusses the management style, branding, employee recruitment and retention, compensation and incentives and strategic planning of pirates and why these systems were effective. There are some valuable lessons to be learned.
— Bill Sutton
Freakonomics blog
The Invisible Hook is an excellent book by one of the most creative young economists around.
— Steven D. Levitt
IPA Reviews
Peter Leeson's The Invisible Hook argues that many of the founding principles of capitalist, liberal democracies are not rooted in the Glorious Revolution or the writing of the Declaration of Independence; but the incentive structures necessary to keep a group of rowdy ocean-bound outlaws working as a team of ruthless sea bandits.
— Tim Wilson
Las Vegas Weekly
It's Freakonomics meets Pirates of the Caribbean. Jack Hirshleifer meets Jack Sparrow. Fischer Black meets Blackbeard. Adam Smith meets Captain Hook. . . . Peter Leeson claims, 'A pirate ship more closely resembled a Fortune 500 company than the society of savage schoolchildren depicted in William Golding's Lord of the Flies.' And by the end of the book, he had me convinced of it.
— Rick Lax
Journal of Value Inquiry
[T]here is much to be learned from Blackbeard and his compatriots: social order can arise without explicit design, and economics provides a powerful set of ideas for understanding how. This is the central idea of The Invisible Hook, and part of the reason why it is among the best popular works of economics in recent years.
— Francis J. DiTraglia
Comparative Political Studies
I guarantee that after the first few pages you won't be able to put this book down, and you will come away with a set of refreshing insights that you may very well find relevant to your own research agenda. . . . To put it bluntly, this book is a must read, or at least a 'should read,' for comparative political scientists, particularly those with a taste for the world of economics. . . . Leeson should at least get a couple doubloons of your hard-earned booty.
— Anthony Gill
Central European Journal of International and Security Studies

The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, stands out as a novel contribution to international economics and, by extension, international relations.
— Mitchell A. Belfer
Public Choice
The Invisible Hook is a great read. I recommend it without hesitation to professional academics, students, anyone interested in a clear exposition of the economic way of thinking, and every scurvy dog who is interested in pirating.
— Bruce L. Benson
Central European Journal of International & Security Studies
The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates, stands out as a novel contribution to international economics and, by extension, international relations.
— Mitchell A. Belfer
Democracy
Peter T. Leeson . . . puts salty flesh on the bones of the pirates' legend in The Invisible Hook, pulling off the formidable trick of being both rigorous and cheeky. . . . Leeson's lights . . . are bright and convincing. . . . [A] jaunty gem of a book. . . . [H]is argument assuredly does bolster the Chicago School case that the dismal science pervades every human endeavor.
— Jonathan Stevenson
The Barnes & Noble Review
The world is in the middle (if we're lucky) of the most catastrophic destruction of private and public wealth in the history of free markets. Not the best time, you might have thought, to publish a book that discovers wondrous analogies between classic capitalist laissez-faire and the bloody practices of 18th-century pirates -- and dips the Jolly Roger in salute.

But the people at Princeton University Press know something that disconsolate losers of the Great Recession too quickly forget. The economic libertarianism that brought us this debacle is at the heart of the American Dream. Times will be tough, but no one in Washington is going to shackle our freedom to enrich ourselves, any more than Disney will dump the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Why shackle imagination, enterprise, risk taking? Think of the sequel.

Be that as it may, Peter T. Leeson, an economics professor at George Mason University, has given us an engaging twofer of a book. On the one hand we have his guided tour through the grisly business practices of maritime bandit captains like Blackbeard, "Calico" Jack Rackam, Edward England, Bartholomew Roberts, William Kidd, William Taylor, William Fly, and dozens of other entrepreneurial seafarers who preyed on Atlantic and Caribbean shipping in the golden age of piracy, between 1716 and 1726.

On the other hand is Leeson's guidance to the economic underpinnings of this swashbuckling age, in effect a sprightly presentation of some rudiments of Microeconomics 101. Pausing before some particularly ghastly piratical practice -- the brutality, say, that was often visited upon crew and passengers who tried to hide valuables from the "invisible hook" -- Leeson discourses on the miraculous power of the profit motive. Ordinary folk, beguiled by the darker corners of human psychology, might suppose that pirates who did things like tear the living heart out of a prisoner, then roast and eat it before the others, was a psychopathic killer, clinically depressed, with tendencies to necrophilia. Economics, Leeson tells us, has a simpler explanation: the man is merely building his business's reputation for having a "high discount rate," thereby discouraging future clients from offering resistance to the sales pitch.

While Microeconomics 101 is Leeson's main source of amusing piracy analogies, The Federalist Papers is another. It appears that governance aboard a pirate ship was not at all what you might imagine -- a tyranny modified by anarchy. To Leeson, rather, it resembles a more familiar arrangement: a democracy. Captains were elected and could be deposed by vote, and their powers were clearly confined to prize taking and other emergency decisions; justice was the province of the quartermaster, also elected, who ensured the proper (nearly communistic) distribution of booty among the crew, and other less vital matters. Leeson does not shy from discerning in these arrangements a harbinger of the U.S. Constitution.

If Leeson's book belongs to a genre, it is the genre that beguiles millions even now at the end, some say, of capitalism. I mean the "business book," specifically books that probe the writings or careers of great men (no women that I know of) for tips on how to manage or rescue firms and grow them to stratospheric heights of success. The Invisible Hook is not a neat fit in this company: Leeson's repeated analogizing between microeconomics and piracy, and back again, rather confuses the question of who's tipping whom. The tips themselves, however, stand out clearly. One that fascinated me was the aforementioned usefulness of cruelty in the business plan.

I thought immediately, as Leeson might have done, of the very different business practice of the pirates currently raiding sea lanes off the coast of Somalia. Their profits are so huge -- millions of dollars per prize -- as to make their 18th-century predecessors drool. The magnitude of the booty is new, but offshore robbery and shipnapping are not. Opportunity beckons wherever transport costs oblige merchant vessels to sail temptingly close to shore, as around Somalia's Puntland, or to navigate narrow waterways such as the Malacca Straits between Peninsular Malaysia and the (Indonesian) island of Sumatra, or the Strait of Gibraltar between Spain and Morocco. Straits are never dire for maritime banditry, especially where some degree of lawlessness, what Leeson might term "weak market regulation," obtains in neighboring states. Somalia is perfect in this respect, as its business environment lacks any regulations at all -- or, for that matter, any state.

Lawlessness, curiously enough, accounts for one of the cruelest "best practices" of Leeson's pirates, the savagery they visited upon the top officers of certain merchant ships. Many pirates had been merchant seamen themselves before turning to the high-risk, high-return business whose logo was the Jolly Roger. And many bore the scars, often on their backs, of the unconstrained violence with which some captains maintained discipline. What the pirates, as victims of that violence, did on the happy occasion of snaring one of these officers was for them simply an act of retributive justice. The idea seems to have been the noble one of improving outrageous working conditions in the maritime transport industry.

Somali pirates, however, respond somewhat differently to the lawlessness of their seas. They too see themselves as bringers of order and justice. "Think of us like a Coast Guard," one imprisoned pirate explained to a New York Times reporter in Puntland. "We don't consider ourselves sea bandits. Sea bandits are those who illegally fish in our waters and dump wastes in our seas..." One economist, much as Leeson again might have done had he looked into this matter, has asked us to think of the fish issue as a "resource swap" -- $100 million a year in ransomed ships, over against $200 million a year in poached fish for Asian markets. Not a good deal for the Somalis, one might argue. But the balance of trade may be shifting to the pirates: in the first six months of 2009 alone there have been 126 raids on shipping off the Somali coast, including 44 sea-jackings, setting the 15-year-old industry -- already five years longer than the golden age -- on the road to doubling 2008 revenues.

It turns out, however, that the secret of Somali piracy turns on that crucial factor in the 18th-century way of doing business in a lawless marketplace, cruelty. The Somalis don't practice it, and for the same reason that Blackbeard did, a keen regard for the bottom line. Killing and maiming unarmed crew members, even officers, would result in the arming of the freighters, tankers, and yachts on which the sea bandits prey. An arms race would ensue, and not a bloodless one. And so, for the moment, the pirates and the navies of 24 offended nations suffer an unacknowledged stand-off, with neither side -- except, once, on the American side -- daring to break it.

I wouldn't recount this three-century update of piratical business behavior if it weren't for a curious omission in Leeson's book -- curious because it speaks so well of his fond capitalism's moral development.

In all the great 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century debates over which polity best meets the needs of mankind, one point was repeatedly made by proponents of representative government and unfettered -- that is, no mercantilism -- business enterprise. The point was that state power and wealth power were not safe in the hands of monarchs and aristocrats. Their innate pride and quarrelsomeness had led, and inevitably would lead, to endless wars, within and between nations and empires. Far better, it was argued, to vest the middling, and one day even the lower classes, with access to both forms of power: the theory being that they would be too busy making a living to think of making war. Peace would reign. An overly optimistic prediction, as we know. Still, in the seas off Somalia, the fragile peace amid frantic commerce represents some sort of triumph of modern polities, and Leeson should have hailed it.

I recommend The Invisible Hook nonetheless -- for sober libertarians who need to brush up their laissez-faire economics, and for pirate fans in need of sobering by a lighthearted practitioner of the dismal science. --Nelson Aldrich, Jr.

Nelson Aldrich, Jr. is the author of George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals -- and a Few Unappreciative Observers and Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America. A former editor at the Paris Review and Harper's, his writings appear in numerous publications.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691150093
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/25/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 325,630
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter T. Leeson is the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism in the Department of Economics at George Mason University.

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Read an Excerpt

THE INVISIBLE HOOK

The Hidden Economics of Pirates
By PETER T. LEESON

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13747-6


Chapter One

THE INVISIBLE HOOK

Charybdis herself must have spat them into the sea. They committed "a Crime so odious and horrid in all its Circumstances, that those who have treated on that Subject have been at a loss for Words and Terms to stamp a sufficient Ignominy upon it." Their contemporaries called them "Sea-monsters," "Hell-Hounds," and "Robbers, Opposers and Violators of all Laws, Humane and Divine." Some believed they were "Devils incarnate." Others suspected they were "Children of the Wicked One" himself. "Danger lurked in their very Smiles."

For decades they terrorized the briny deep, inspiring fear in the world's most powerful governments. The law branded them hostes humani generis-"a sort of People who may be truly called Enemies to Mankind"-and accused them of aiming to "Subvert and Extinguish the Natural and Civil Rights" of humanity. They "declared War against all the World" and waged it in earnest. Motley, murderous, and seemingly maniacal, their mystique is matched only by our fascination with their fantastic way of life. "These Men, whom we term, and not without Reason, the Scandal of human Nature, who were abandoned to all Vice, and lived by Rapine" left a mark on the world that remains nearly three centuries after they left it. They are the pirates, history's most notorious criminals, and this is the story of the hidden force that propelled them-the invisible hook.

Adam Smith, Meet "Captain Hook"

In 1776 Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith published a landmark treatise that launched the study of modern economics. Smith titled his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In it, he described the most central idea to economics, which he called the "invisible hand." The invisible hand is the hidden force that guides economic cooperation. According to Smith, people are self-interested; they're interested in doing what's best for them. However, often times, to do what's best for them, people must also do what's best for others. The reason for this is straightforward. Most of us can only serve our self-interests by cooperating with others. We can achieve very few of our self-interested goals, from securing our next meal to acquiring our next pair of shoes, in isolation. Just think about how many skills you'd need to master and how much time you'd require if you had to produce your own milk or fashion your own coat, let alone manufacture your own car.

Because of this, Smith observed, in seeking to satisfy our own interests, we're led, "as if by an invisible hand," to serve others' interests too. Serving others' interests gets them to cooperate with us, serving our own. The milk producer, for example, must offer the best milk at the lowest price possible to serve his self-interest, which is making money. Indirectly he serves his customers' self-interest, which is acquiring cheap, high-quality milk. And on the other side of this, the milk producers' customers, in their capacity as producers of whatever they sell, must offer the lowest price and highest quality to their customers, and so on. The result is a group of self-interest seekers, each narrowly focused on themselves but also unwittingly focused on assisting others.

Smith's invisible hand is as true for criminals as it is for anyone else. Although criminals direct their cooperation at someone else's loss, if they desire to move beyond one-man mug jobs, they must also cooperate with others to satisfy their self-interests. A one-man pirate "crew," for example, wouldn't have gotten far. To take the massive hauls they aimed at, pirates had to cooperate with many other sea dogs. The mystery is how such a shifty "parcel of rogues" managed to pull this off. And the key to unlocking this mystery is the invisible hook-the piratical analog to Smith's invisible hand that describes how pirate self-interest seeking led to cooperation among sea bandits, which this book explores.

The invisible hook differs from the invisible hand in several respects. First, the invisible hook considers criminal self-interest's effect on cooperation in pirate society. It's concerned with how criminal social groups work. The invisible hand, in contrast, considers traditional consumer and producer self-interests' effects on cooperation in the marketplace. It's concerned with how legitimate markets work. If the invisible hand examines the hidden order behind the metaphorical "anarchy of the market," the invisible hook examines the hidden order behind the literal anarchy of pirates.

Second, unlike traditional economic actors guided by the invisible hand, pirates weren't primarily in the business of selling anything. They therefore didn't have customers they needed to satisfy. Further, piratical self-interest seeking didn't benefit wider society, as traditional economic actors' self-interest seeking does. In their pursuit of profits, businessmen, for example, improve our standards of living-they make products that make our lives better. Pirates, in contrast, thrived parasitically off others' production. Thus pirates didn't benefit society by creating wealth; they harmed society by siphoning existing wealth off for themselves.

Despite these differences, pirates, like everyone else, had to cooperate to make their ventures successful. And it was self-interest seeking that led them to do so. This critical feature, common to pirates and the members of "legitimate" society, is what fastens the invisible hook to the invisible hand.

The Invisible Hook applies the "economic way of thinking" to pirates. This way of thinking is grounded in a few straightforward assumptions. First, individuals are self-interested. This doesn't mean they never care about anyone other than themselves. It just means most of us, most of the time, are more interested in benefiting ourselves and those closest to us than we're interested in benefiting others. Second, individuals are rational. This doesn't mean they're robots or infallible. It just means individuals try to achieve their self-interested goals in the best ways they know how. Third, individuals respond to incentives. When the cost of an activity rises, individuals do less of it. When the cost of an activity falls, they do more of it. The reverse is true for the benefit of an activity. When the benefit of an activity rises, we do more it. When the benefit falls, we do less of it. In short, people try to avoid costs and capture benefits.

Economists call this model of individual decision making "rational choice." The rational choice framework not only applies to "normal" individuals engaged in "regular" behavior. It also applies to abnormal individuals engaged in unusual behavior. In particular, it applies to pirates. Pirates satisfied each of the assumptions of the economic way of thinking described above. Pirates, for instance, were self-interested. Material concerns gave birth to pirates and profit strongly motivated them. Contrary to pop-culture depictions, pirates were also highly rational. As we'll examine later in this book, pirates devised ingenious practices-some they're infamous for-to circumvent costs that threatened to eat into their profits and increase the revenue of their plundering expeditions. Pirates also responded to incentives. When the law made it riskier (and thus costlier) to be a pirate, pirates devised clever ways to offset this risk. When pirates offered crew members rewards for superlative pirating, crew members worked harder to keep a lookout for the next big prize, and so on.

It's not just that economics can be applied to pirates. Rational choice is the only way to truly understand flamboyant, bizarre, and downright shocking pirate practices. Why, for example, did pirates fly flags with skulls and crossbones? Why did they brutally torture some captives? How were pirates successful? And why did they create "pirate codes"? The answers to these questions lie in the hidden economics of pirates, which only the rational choice framework can reveal. History supplies the "raw material" that poses these questions. Economics supplies the analytical "lens" for finding the answers.

When we view pirates through this lens, their seemingly unusual behavior becomes quite usual. Strange pirate behavior resulted from pirates rationally responding to the unusual economic context they operated in-which generated unusual costs and benefits-not from some inherent strangeness of pirates themselves. As remaining chapters of this book illustrate, a pirate ship more closely resembled a Fortune 500 company than the society of savage schoolchildren depicted in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Peglegs and parrots aside, in the end, piracy was a business. It was a criminal business, but a business nonetheless, and deserves to be examined in this light.

Avast, Ye Scurvy Dogs

Many discussions of pirates use the terms pirates, buccaneers, privateers, and corsairs interchangeably. There's a reason for this; all were kinds of sea bandits. But each variety of sea bandit was different. Pure pirates were total outlaws. They attacked merchant ships indiscriminately for their own gain. Richard Allein, attorney general of South Carolina, described them this way: "Pirates prey upon all Mankind, and their own Species and Fellow-Creatures, without Distinction of Nations or Religions." Eighteenth-century sea bandits were predominantly this ilk.

Privateers, in contrast, were state-sanctioned sea robbers. Governments commissioned them to attack and seize enemy nations' merchant ships during war. Privateers, then, weren't pirates at all; they had government backing. Similarly, governments sanctioned corsairs' plunder. The difference is corsairs targeted shipping on the basis of religion. The Barbary corsairs of the North African coast, for instance, attacked ships from Christendom. However, there were Christian corsairs as well, such as the Knights of Malta. This book's discussion primarily excludes privateers and corsairs since they typically weren't outlaws.

Buccaneers, in contrast, typically were. The original buccaneers were French hunters living on Hispaniola, modern-day Haiti, in the early seventeenth century. Although they mostly hunted wild game, they weren't opposed to the occasional act of piracy either. In 1630 the buccaneers migrated to Tortuga, a tiny, turtle-shaped island off Hispaniola, which soon attracted English and Dutch rabble as well. Spain officially possessed Hispaniola and Tortuga and wasn't fond of the outlaw settlers. In an effort to drive them away, the Spanish government wiped out the wild animals the hunters thrived on. Instead of leaving, however, the buccaneers began hunting a different sort of game: Spanish shipping.

In 1655 England wrested Jamaica from the Spaniards and encouraged the buccaneers to settle there as a defense against the island's recapture. Buccaneers spent much of their time preying on Spanish ships laden with gold and other cargo sailing between the mother country and Spain's possessions in the Americas. Many of these attacks were outright piracy. But many others were not. Eager to break Spain's monopoly on the New World under the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), England and France commissioned these sea rovers as privateers to harass Spain. "Buccaneering," then, "was a peculiar blend of piracy and privateering in which the two elements were often indistinguishable." However, since "the aims and means of [buccaneering] operations were clearly piratical," it's standard to treat the buccaneers as pirates, or at least protopirates, which I do in this book.

Although buccaneers weren't pure pirates, they anticipated and influenced pure pirates' organization in the early eighteenth century. Because of this, it's important to draw on them at various points, as I do, throughout my discussion. The same is true of the Indian Ocean pirates operating from about 1690 to 1700. These sea rovers represent a bridge between the more privateerlike buccaneers and the total-outlaw pirates active from 1716 to 1726. In the late seventeenth century, the Indian Ocean pirates, or "Red Sea Men" as their contemporaries sometimes called them, settled on Madagascar and its surrounding islands where they were well situated to prey on Moorish treasure fleets. For the most part, Indian Ocean pirates were pirates plain and simple. But some of them sailed under a veneer of legitimacy, which their successors abandoned completely. While this book covers pirates from about 1670 to 1730, it focuses on the final stage of the great age of piracy (1716-26) when men like Blackbeard, Bartholomew Roberts, and "Calico" Jack Rackam prowled the sea.

Jamaican governor Sir Nicholas Lawes described these sea scoundrels as "banditti of all nations." A sample of seven hundred pirates active in the Caribbean between 1715 and 1725, for example, reveals that 35 percent were English, 25 percent were American, 20 percent were West Indian, 10 percent were Scottish, 8 percent were Welsh, and 2 percent were Swedish, Dutch, French, and Spanish. Others came from Portugal, Scandinavia, Greece, and East India.

The pirate population is hard to precisely measure but by all accounts was considerable. In 1717 the governor of Bermuda estimated "by a modest computation" that 1,000 pirates plied the seas. In 1718 a different official estimated the pirate population to be 2,000. In 1720 Jeremiah Dummer reported 3,000 active pirates to the Council of Trade and Plantations. And in 1721 Captain Charles Johnson suggested that 1,500 pirates haunted the Indian Ocean alone. Based on these reports and pirate historians' estimates, in any one year between 1716 and 1722 roughly 1,000 to 2,000 sea bandits prowled the pirate-infested waters of the Caribbean, Atlantic Ocean, and Indian Ocean. This may not seem especially impressive. But when you put the pirate population in historical perspective it is. The Royal Navy, for example, employed an average of only 13,000 men in any one year between 1716 and 1726. In a good year, then, the pirate population was more than 15 percent of the navy's. In 1680 the entire population of the North American colonies was less than 152,000. In fact, as late as 1790, when the first national census was taken, only twenty-four places in the United States had populations larger than 2,500.

Many pirates lived together on land bases, such as the one Woodes Rogers went to squelch at New Providence in the Bahamas in 1718. However, the most important unit of pirate society, and the strongest sense in which this society existed, was the polity aboard the pirate ship. Contrary to most people's images of pirate crews, this polity was large. Based on figures from thirty-seven pirate ships between 1716 and 1726, the average crew had about 80 members. Several pirate crews were closer to 120, and crews of 150 to 200 weren't uncommon. Captain Samuel Bellamy's pirate crew, for example, consisted of "200 brisk Men of several Nations." Other crews were even bigger than this. Blackbeard's crew aboard Queen Anne's Revenge was 300-men strong. In contrast, the average two-hundred-ton merchant ship in the early eighteenth century carried only 13 to 17 men.

Furthermore, some pirate crews were too large to fit in one ship. In this case they formed pirate squadrons. Captain Bartholomew Roberts, for example, commanded a squadron of four ships that carried 508 men. In addition, pirate crews sometimes joined for concerted plundering expeditions. The most impressive fleets of sea bandits belong to the buccaneers. Buccaneer Alexander Exquemelin, for example, records that Captain Morgan commanded a fleet of thirty-seven ships and 2,000 men, enough to attack communities on the Spanish Main. Elsewhere he refers to a group of buccaneers who "had a force of at least twenty vessels in quest of plunder." Similarly, William Dampier records a pirating expedition that boasted ten ships and 960 men. Though their fleets weren't as massive, eighteenth-century pirates also "cheerfully joined their Brethren in Iniquity" to engage in multicrew pirating expeditions.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE INVISIBLE HOOK by PETER T. LEESON Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi
Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
Chapter 1: The Invisible Hook 1
Chapter 2: Vote for Blackbeard
The Economics of Pirate Democracy 23
Chapter 3: An-arrgh-chy
The Economics of the Pirate Code 45
Chapter 4: Skull & Bones
The Economics of the Jolly Roger 82
Chapter 5: Walk the Plank
The Economics of Pirate Torture 107
Chapter 6: Pressing Pegleg
The Economics of Pirate Conscription 134
Chapter 7: Equal Pay for Equal Prey
The Economics of Pirate Tolerance 156
Chapter 8: The Secrets of Pirate Management 176
Epilogue: Omnipresent Economics 194
Postscript: You Can't Keep a Sea Dog Down The Fall and Rise of Piracy 197
Where This Book Found Its Buried Treasure A Note on Sources 207
Notes 213
Index 2

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