The Traveling Book Show

Joe Lavin's Humor Column

The Traveling Book Show

April 18, 2003

From Computoredge Magazine


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I look left. Then, I look right. Luckily, no one in the mall is watching me, yet I still feel slightly paranoid. I grab a book from my backpack and leave it on a bench. Quickly, I walk away, hoping that nobody saw me. Don't worry. I'm not littering. Instead, I'm releasing a book into the wild for bookcrossing.com.

This two-year-old web site is essentially turning books into the ultimate shareware. The idea is to register a book at their web site, attach a label with a BookCrossing ID number and web address, and then release it somewhere for others to find. If people do find it, they can then go to the web site, search for the book by its ID, and complete a journal entry announcing their discovery. This way, you can track exactly where your book goes. As more people read the book and re-release it, the more journal entries there will conceivably be, and your books may soon be traveling more than you are.

When I first heard about BookCrossing, I was anxious to try it out. Once I'm actually releasing a book, however, it feels odd. I'm only leaving it on a bench, yet somehow I cringe at the idea of being spotted doing this. For my first release, I decide to leave three books in the mall at the same time, as a sort of controlled test to see which will get further. The first two books are J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. They've battled at the movie theater. Now, I want to see how they will compete as books. For the third book, I choose my own, But I Digress, a collection of humor columns that I self-published a few years ago. Considering all the extra copies in my closet, this seems as good a way as any to get rid of them.

I leave Harry Potter on a bench outside a game shop. The troublemaker in me releases The Fellowship of the Ring on the other side of the mall near Borders. I'm a little late apparently. Before I can release it, I see a man walking out of Borders with a Tolkien book sticking out of his bag. Would Borders have made that sale had I arrived a few minutes earlier? Who knows? As for my book, I leave it in the food court. On all three, I place a large Post-it note on the cover that says "Free Book!" I then go home, post my release notes, and anxiously wait to see if any will be caught.

The results are in the very next day. Harry Potter wins this round. "I plan to read it and then I will offer it to my godson and his siblings to read and pass on," a person writes on the web site. I'm quite excited to have my first book caught, though no further release notes appear after this. Unfortunately, with Tolkien, nothing happens. I suspect someone from Borders snatched it up before anyone could find it.

As for my book, I would rather not talk about it. It gets absolutely nowhere. Looking back, the food court seems like an awful release point. I cringe at the very real possibility that my book was thrown out by a cleaning person along with all the Taco Bell leftovers. I start to wonder whether it would have been just as effective to have labeled my book and then thrown it in the trash myself. Still, one of three isn't bad at all. According to their web site, only about 20-25% of books released are ever caught. So far, my results are above average.

Later, I'm surprised to find a book myself, Tempest Rising by Diane McKinney-Whetstone. Someone has left it on the bus that I take to work. I suppose that with over 100,000 BookCrossing members, I shouldn't be so surprised, but I am. It's not really my kind of book -- the blurb on the back describes it as "touching" -- so I leave it in a sandwich shop near my home without reading it. By now, it feels a little easier to leave books in public. The book is gone a few days later, though no one ever says they found it.

However, Sandra Tsing Loh's Depth Takes a Holiday, which I leave on a Boston subway train, is picked up. The next morning, someone named Matt writes that he's already halfway through it and plans to give it to a friend travelling to New York City. Now, this is exciting. This book may well be going places.

When I attend a meeting of members in Boston at a local café, it becomes clear how zealous some people are about BookCrossing. One woman says she has registered over 300 books and likes to buy two copies of every book she reads -- one to keep and one to release. She also says she believes that most books are actually found, but that many people just never bother going to the web site.

Nine of us show up for this meeting -- eight women of varying ages and myself. Single men take note: I'm told that these demographics are fairly typical. We spend a pleasant hour and a half talking about all our favorite books, though I clearly don't fit in -- and not just because of my gender. I like to read, but I don't like to read quite this much.

The café is an official BookCrossing zone, so fifteen books are already there. Of course, we also bring our own to trade. (Many BookCrossers prefer to trade books with other members, either through the mail or at meetings like this one.) I bring a George Orwell novel Coming up for Air, and take Russell Taylor's The Looniness of the Long Distance Runner about an out-of-shape Englishman who attempts the New York City Marathon.

One woman has also brought Rage of Spirits by Noel Hynd, who just happens to be dating a friend of mine. I've been meaning to read one of his books, so I happily take this book home with me. I have not met Noel yet, but this woman is ecstatic that I have some connection to him. She asks me to e-mail my friend to say that his book Ghosts is one of her absolute favorites, and I do so. But I can't help feeling a little guilty. I wonder how thrilled he will be to know that people like me are reading his books for free. I suppose it's much like getting a book from the library, but book sharing like this has to cut into the profits.

Then again, as people like to say about online music, perhaps the books just want to be free.


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