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Sharing my Book Friends with Strangers
By Lyle Penner

ALTHOUGH THE WEB has been criticized for spreading mediocrity more widely than ever before, sometimes you come across an idea that makes you stand up and give the Net, and the idea’s creators, an ovation. BookCrossings.com  is one such service that stands out for me. The moment I stumbled across the site  there was a sense of “aha” - an idea whose time had come.

Imagine the world as an immense, free public library without walls whose checkout desk is universally available through the Web. More than a few people have already started. BookCrossings.com, conceived in early 2001 by Ron Hornbaker as a “labour of love”, has now over 94,000 members who have collectively “registered” over 260,000 books.

pull-out quotationHow does the concept work? In an almost literal revival of the “message in a bottle” idea, we readers are invited to write a short online journal about our reading of a book, place an identifying label inside the cover, and then leave the book in a public place – coffee or bus stop, phone booth, anywhere. Afterwards we can notify would-be “book hunters” on the site where and when the book was released “into the wild.” Why would we do such a curious thing?

I wasn’t sure but in January I took a look at my beloved “finish-it-yourself” bookshelf. My books are some of my favourite small treasures. Each has its own place, value and history. Some because I’ve read them and I have been enriched by their perspectives and shared experiences. Others because they are waiting, even asking, to offer me their wisdom. (I probably need it!) Others still are there because they just seem to look good. Most, if not all, seem to have almost magical presence that points to something more than the mere words on the pages.Intrigued by browsing BookCrossings.com, I intended to choose five books to let loose “in the wild”. It wasn’t long before I realized that making these choices wouldn’t be easy. Do I choose a book to give away because it is of lesser value to me, or because its cover is torn? The spirit of the vision persuaded me otherwise. My criterion was whether I had thoroughly enjoyed the book’s reading. Hence, my picks included Robert J. Sawyer’s excellent sci-fi book, Calculating God, and Reginald Hill’s On Beulah Height.

My son Joel and I dropped one off in a phone booth at the local international airport, a couple in a city bus on the way to work downtown, and a couple in a downtown mall. To make my point, I put a sticky note on the book covers saying “free book!” The dropping off experiences felt devious but strangely rewarding. The fun part was the mystery of not knowing what if anything would happen. Who will pick up the books? Will they read them and send them on their way in turn?

It was odd thinking that these books that were, in a way, my personal friends, would not be reread by myself or seen on my bookshelf again. It seemed almost like they had lives of their own, and some mysterious “other” was going to befriend and take care of them now. This process of book sharing is somehow about letting go, and becoming part of a larger almost invisible community of sharing. In truth, I couldn’t wait to tell friends about the site’s vision. After dropping off the fifth book, I was pleased to notice on the BookCrossings site that someone had found my novel by Jim Crace on their lunch hour and intended to read it, thanking me!

I’m fortunate that in our local Watershed community a lot of book, video and DVD sharing goes on. But here in the larger urban context, the same dynamic can also happen. I would imagine that staunch defenders of the almighty economy may thumb their noses on free book exchanges, but material ownership finally is on the shallow end of the value scale. My natural inclination is to hold back and not trust that the universe resources me with what I really need, but that is rather small-minded. I mean, really. What do we live for except to make life a little deeper and a little easier for others? Now I’m waiting patiently to “hunt” down someone else’s book left in my neighbourhood.

You may want to release a book friend in one of your own random acts of kindness! Site: www.bookcrossing.com.

“A book is not only a friend, it makes friends for you. When you have possessed a book with mind and spirit, you are enriched. But when you pass it on you are enriched threefold.”
• Henry Miller, The Books in My Life

[Download printer friendly copy.]

*Companion article: My BookCrossing Adventure

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