Toss away your books, then track them online
The Borneo Post - Sunday 7 July 2002
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SAN FRANCISCO: Book lovers are committing random acts of literary kindness, leaving books in public places for strangers to find and then tracking the book's fate online. Books have been "released" at places ranging from Pacific Bell Park to the Japanese Tea Garden, from a cafeteria in a highpowered Silicon Valley law firm to a Dublin-bound BART train.
Many of the books were picked up, registered on a Web site and later re-released for the next chance encounter. Along the way, something else is happening: People are reading books they probably wouldn't have chosen on their own. What started a year ago in Kansas City as a way to share books for free has grown into an online community of book releasers and finders who would love a world littered with free literature.
More than 10,500 people, who call themselves "bookcrossers," have been united by a love of reading, serendipity and sleuthing. Setting books free is being likened to a modern-day message in a bottle. By word of mouth, the Web site BookCrossing.com which doesn't charge a fee or accept advertising -- has become the US's fourth most popular online reading site, according to the search firm Google. Since its inception, more than 25,000 books have been released - mostly in the United States, but also in England, South Africa, Russia, New Zealand and the Philippines, among other countries.
"I was so excited the day I found a BookCrossing book that I went home, told my mom about it and jumped up -and down," says 19-year-old Karyn Serface, who lives in Los Gatos. "I fell in love with it right away. It was very kismet. My whole summer will be taken up with this." The book, called "Evening" by Susan Minot, had been left at Peet's Coffee in Willow Glen, a suburb of Sacramento. It had BookCrossing's "I am not lost! Free pre-read book" sticker -complete with the logo of a book trotting across a street - detailing what to do to register the book online.
Following the directions, Serface went to the Web site and logged a journal entry about when and how she'd found the book. Each label includes a tracking number. "I love tire idea of knowing what happens when you let ate take over," said Serface, who works as a nanny. Saving finished "Evening," Serface is now looking for a )lace to pass it on.
M. J. Rose, an author of three novels who covers online publishing for Wired.com and Salon.com and was called he "poster girl" of e-publishing by Time magazine, believes the concept of free books in public places is part )f an effort to create communities through shared interests. "The idea that people are going to set these books free and give them a new chance to be discovered is amazing," Rose said.
A Web site called Where's George? lets visitors register and track the circulation of dollar bills at wheresgeorge.com. PhotoTag (phototag.org) publishes photos taken with disposable cameras that have been passed from stranger to stranger. Free Words (freewords.org) encourages people to slip a book of 13,000 stream- of-consciousness words into libraries and bookstores.
BookCrossing founder Ron Hornbaker, who lives and works in Kansas City, drew inspiration from these sites. "I began to wonder what else people would like to track and thought about how people love to share books," said Hornbaker, a partner in a software company called Humankind Systems, which is footing the BookCrossing bill. "I think people feel they're doing a bit of philanthropy, of sharing with the world. And it makes them feel sleuth-like. Someday I hope I'll be walking down the street and see a book with our label. Just imagine the whole world as a library."
He's been surprised by the popularity of shared books. Some members have released more than 1,000 books. The top book releaser, Harriet Klausner, who lives in Morrow, Georgia, has released 1,774 books, including 128 in the past seven days. Diane Driver, who works at UC Berkeley Resource Centre on Aging, wanted her first book release to be memorable.
During a visit last week to Pacific Grove, she found the perfect opportunity. Venturing out early one morning, she placed "The Wake of the Whale" on top of a whale sculpture in front of the natural history museum. She returned a few hours later to find it gone. She is now hooked.
Oakland resident Chris Pankey, a former pilot who manages a personnel firm, chose a trip to Hawaii to release three books. A work on Amelia Earhart was left in the airport. Judy Hardin of Oakland, who works for a San Francisco book publisher, recalls the thrill of releasing her first book.
The title was "The Killing of History." The location was Pac Bell Park. Hardin recently went public with another book, "Who Killed Homer." It was left on a bus. "By setting books free, you put these powerful ideas into the hands of others," she said. "And, it feels good, kind of anti-establishment."