How to release books into the wild

Each Christmas, books are among the most popular gifts both to give and receive. For the giver, every form of media outlet is featuring 'recommended' and 'best of' lists for the year, so there is no shortage of helpful suggestions. (And, for some of us, there is the added attraction that a book is something we can actually wrap - without the finished product looking like the aftermath of a life-or-death struggle between Hallmark and Scotch tape.)

For the recipient, on the other hand, there will be the chance of getting a publication that, while appreciated, doesn't really suit his or her personal tastes. (After all, he or she may not be interested in the 'real' story behind the story behind the story of the Da Vinci Code, and just how many gardening books does the average 11th-floor apartment dweller need?)

With that in mind, it may be reassuring to know that if you don't get the perfect literary fit (or the receipt) this year, there is an alternative to simply letting the volume(s) languish on the bookshelf - you can set them free. BookCrossing.com has been facilitating the redistribution of literature for more than three years now, and even offers a form of vicarious travel as you tag and track your contributions around the world.

If you haven't already heard of it, BookCrossing was launched in April of 2001 - born from the premise that most books, once read, do nothing more than occupy shelf space (or worse, landfills). Taking on the role of a global exchange, BookCrossing encourages readers to pass their used books along (or, as the site calls it, "Read and Release") - extending the useful life of volumes by leaving them in public places, in hopes that whoever finds them will read them, enjoy them, and release them again. (While well- suited to recycling the less than ideal Christmas gift, the site and its features were created for, and will be even more attractive to, people who might want to share the experience of a book they have actually read and enjoyed - enriching the literary lives of others one book at a time.)

Of course, anyone inclined towards becoming a literary Johnny Appleseed can simply start leaving books on park benches - what makes BookCrossing worth the extra effort is its ability to follow what eventually happens to each liberated volume.

After reading a book, members register the title on the site and are encouraged to contribute a Journal entry with their impressions of the publication. Each registered book is also given a Web page and a unique identification number, which the member records on the inside front cover of the book along with BookCrossing's website address. (Dedicated participants can take advantage of specially designed, print-your-own label templates available on the site.)

From this point forward, anyone who picks up the book can use the website to add their own comments to the Journal - allowing the original owner to track not only the book's movements, but its impact on its temporary custodians as well. (Members are notified via e-mail whenever one of their releases 'checks in' in the form of a new Journal entry. Such a confirmed sighting is referred to as a "successful release.")

While the unadvertised site got off to a modest start (94 members in the first month), word of mouth and press coverage (including this fine publication in 2002) have created a genuine online phenomenon - which has seen the creation of a specific BookCrossing Directory in Google, and the August 2004 addition of the term, "bookcrossing," to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

And if being officially added to the lexicon isn't validation enough, those more concerned with cold, hard numbers should be suitably impressed by the fact that BookCrossing currently boasts more than 300,000 members, with new members joining by the hundreds every day. More? At the time of writing, there have more than one-and-a-half million books released into the wild (placed in locations ranging from a food court table to a statue's hand), in more than 90 countries - with some volumes crossing both national and continental borders.

(The most-travelled book to date, with 101 journalers contributing to the title's Web page, started in Italy in March 2003, and has made stops that have included -in chronological order- British Columbia, Seattle, Austria, Edinburgh, St. Louis, Lisbon, Virginia, Norwich, Missouri, Vienna, Alberta, Paris, Missouri again and, Italy - where it's probably waiting for a fresh passport.)

And if you don't feel like registering and releasing any titles of your own, that won't disqualify you from getting involved - you can always try to track down a feral book through the Go Hunting section, which lists release locations around the world. (Apparently, there are some three dozen titles wandering around my home town as I write this.)

Each entry includes the title, date of release and the location of the 'drop.' (Sometimes, the directions can be quite specific, "...in a Ziploc bag...tied with red yarn up on a fence right next to a "Walking Tour" sign by the bridal path leading towards the lights..." and sometimes a bit of work may be involved in retrieval, "In front of this building...Beverly Hills California, its in the garden, dig OUT.") Additional releases by the same member are included with each listing, so, if you like their taste, you can go back out to try and find their other caches.

It's also possible to browse the entire BookCrossing database by category, or zero in on a specific title through a highly flexible keyword search. And while this feature might be of limited practical use for the hunter (unless you have the ability and desire to travel the world in search of a specific, used paperback), the attached Journal entries can serve as grass roots reviews for titles of interest. Then, if the reviews for a given book look promising, title-specific links to a variety of online booksellers sit at the top of every set of journal entries. For more general information, Forums cover such topics as on-site developments, wish lists, and advice on improving one's release techniques.

BookCrossing is one of those creations that could only exist because of the Web. Not only is there the unique encounter between complete strangers as they compare something as personal as their opinions about someone's favorite book, but there's also the fascinating - albeit occasionally depressing - act of tracking the movements of books that are better travelled than we are.

As one visitor wrote, "Imagine if we'd had the technology to track the travels of a Shakespeare First Folio, a Gutenberg Bible, or even a First Edition of The Big Sleep." Founder Ron Hornbaker has an even more ambitious scenario, "A hundred years from now, your great-great-grandchild might open a book, find a website address with a BookCrossing ID number, and go read a journal entry that YOU wrote. How cool is that?"

Though I don't hold out much hope for any book printed today surviving through a century of being passed around between strangers (even assuming that the Web itself will still exist then), we'll never know if we don't start seeding now. And don't forget, somewhere out there, someone is waiting for that all-Klingon version of The Lord of the Rings that you got from "Santa" last year.

BookCrossing can be found at http://bookcrossing.com/.

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