Every few years or so, I like to look through my books and weed out the ones that have outlived their usefulness to me. Maybe I’ve read them and enjoyed them, but don’t expect to re-read them any time soon. Or maybe they’re books I picked up used long ago and simply never got around to reading. After a certain period of time passes—a decade, perhaps—I have to admit that I probably never will read them. So with a great deal of nostalgia and a bit of remorse, I pack up a few boxes and cart them off, sometimes selling them at a used book store, sometimes donating them to a library. This pruning process, which I’ve repeated countless times, is crucial because there’s simply no more room to put bookshelves. No matter how hard I try, I always accumulate books much faster than I can read or even make space for them. I’m always on the lookout for interesting books, and only my budget keeps my habit from becoming truly intractable.
Well, it’s about time for another round of debookifying (followed, of course, by a small, ritual replenishment at my favorite bookstore), and this time, I’ll include the latest couple of books I’ve written, since I got more free copies from the publisher than I know what to do with. But instead of selling them all for a pittance and then weeping over how much money I’ve lost, I’m going to “set them free.” That’s the lingo used by members of a rapidly growing movement known as bookcrossing, which aims to turn the entire world into a library.
Take My Book, Please
Bookcrossing is the brainchild of Ron Hornbaker, an entrepreneur and book lover who was running a software company when the idea came to him in 2001. After learning about Web sites that enable people to track the movements of other objects around the world, including banknotes and disposable cameras, Hornbaker imagined using a similar process for books. After less than a month of work, he and his wife turned the idea into a unique Web site called BookCrossing.com.
The idea is simple: someone registers a book on this Web site, and in so doing gets a unique ID number that can be jotted down inside the front cover, along with the site’s URL. The owner then hands the book to a friend or leaves it in a public place, perhaps with a sticky note that says “I’m Free!” Whoever picks up the book next is encouraged to record the find, along with comments on the book, on the Web site, and then pass it along to another reader. Books that have been left for someone else to find and read are said to be “released into the wild”; someone who picks up a book and writes a journal entry on the Web site is said to have “caught” it.
Although bookcrossing got off to a slow start, the movement now has hundreds of thousands of members, and is growing at an astonishing rate—with well over a million and a half books released so far. Some books have already been through dozens of hands and have traveled thousands of miles. Although the United States has the largest number of registered books in the wild, bookcrossing participants have released books in at least 90 different countries worldwide.
If You Love It, Set It Free
Tracking the progress of a book and other readers’ comments is one of the most satisfying parts of the bookcrossing experience. Less than 25% of the books released so far have been caught, but participants don’t seem to mind if a book they release vanishes into the ether; they feel they’re doing a public service by making the books available without cost to random people. In fact, the sheer randomness of the entire system is what attracts many people to participate. Although a book you’ve read may disappear, it may also fall into the hands of a celebrity, change someone’s life, or have any number of other unexpected effects.
The BookCrossing Web site enables you to search for books in a wide variety of ways, read journal entries, and register your own books—all free, and with a tasteful minimum of advertising (for books and other relevant products, of course!). And yet, it has become such a success that Hornbaker sold off his company’s software business to concentrate on bookcrossing full-time. The site earns money primarily by selling labels, stamps, bookplates, and other supplies that make it easier to release books, and more likely that finders will catch them. The whole operation is so refreshingly low-key and straightforward that it easily sucks in anyone who likes books and has even a shred of generosity.
Some authors and publishers have expressed concern that if the bookcrossing phenomenon becomes too large, it could damage sales. But so far, just the opposite appears to be true. Participants frequently buy extra copies of their favorite books just to give away, and people who get excited about a book by reading glowing journal entries are much more likely to purchase it themselves than to go looking for it in the wild. All in all, it’s a fabulously clever and effective recycling program that never runs out of raw materials. Coming soon to a coffee shop near you: the world’s largest library! —Joe Kissell