Crossing A Book

March 19, 2003

Since the advent of radio, books have seemed in danger of obsolescence. First radio plays, then television, and finally the Internet, have all presented both fact and fiction in an engaging, lively manner with which some feared books could not compete. However, to those who love the printed page, these media are nothing more than pale imitators. While television may reproduce a story in glorious colour and sound, a keen imagination can turn a book into much more than that: smells, temperatures, textures, breezes and more are all part of the mental landscape of a well-written book.

Still, most book-lovers do not take a negative view of technology. In fact, there is one special group of readers who are using the Internet to turn their love of books into an exciting adventure in sharing and serendipity. The website has made it possible to keep track of books you’ve given away, so that you can find out where they go and what other readers think of them. It’s called “?read and release’, and it’s an intriguing way to spread joy and books throughout the world.

Registering on, and using, the website is easy and doesn’t cost anything. Once you’ve signed up and have printed a set of BookCrossing labels from the site, the fun begins. First, choose a book that you have finished reading and want to give away. From the BookCrossing website, click on “?register book’. Enter information about the book in the fields provided: its title, author, genre, and what you thought of it. (If you ever wanted to be a book critic, this is your chance!) When you’ve finished registering the book, the website will give you a BCID: a BookCrossing Identification Number. Stick a label inside the cover of book, write the BCID on it, and you’re done.

So, you now have a book that’s registered on the site and tagged with its own unique BCID. What’s next? Why, you release the book, of course. Set it free! Give it to a friend, leave it behind on a park bench, or hand it to a stranger on the bus. Any way you can, get that book out into the world. This may be the most fun part of BookCrossing: deciding where to leave the book, and then quickly sneaking away before you’re seen, like some kind of cloak-and-dagger philanthropist.

If you’re lucky, the next person who receives the book will see the label and visit the website. There, they can enter the BCID and make a “?journal entry’ about the book, explaining how it came into their hands and what they thought of it. When they’re finished with the book, they can pass it on to someone else. The result is that as the book travels (sometimes literally around the world), an online log of its journey is created. Whenever someone new makes a journal entry for the book, each of its previous readers gets an e-mail notice from the site. Releasing a book is like sending a message to sea in a bottle: it is now at the mercy of currents and tides; all the releaser can do is trust that Fate will carry it where it needs to go.

It’s exhilarating when a book gets journalled, and many of them do. I’ve released books around Calgary that have journeyed as far as Singapore, England, and Tokyo. A good example is a book called “?Words I Wish I Wrote”, by Robert Fulghum. I bought and read this book years ago. It languished on my bookshelf until I decided to release it last summer. I dropped it off on top of a bank machine on the University of Calgary campus, and crossed my fingers. Later that same day, I got an e-mail saying the book had been picked up and journalled by a student at the U of C. The journaller later passed the book on to someone in his carpool. She read it on her trip to London, where she gave it to someone else. That fellow took it with him on his vacation. He reported that the book accompanied him for several weeks, while he visited such places as Poland and Ukraine. He finally released it at Heathrow Airport on his way home. Everyone who was a part of this chain is now eagerly waiting to see where it travels next- and although I’ve never met any of these people, I somehow feel connected to them through the adventures of the book we share.

It’s wonderful to get a message saying someone has stumbled upon your book and was delighted to receive this unexpected gift. Often, the books seem to “?find’ specific people for a reason: sometimes the person has been wanting to try this author, or an inspirational book has reached them during a dark period of their life, or a travel guide to Belize turned up just when they were trying to decide on a vacation spot. Sometimes a bookcrosser will release a book they hated, and it will fall into the hands of someone who loves it.

Nearly all books seem to be found, in the sense that they disappear from their original location within an hour or two. The majority of finders never make a journal entry, but most bookcrossers agree that the act of giving is more important than whether they ever receive word of the book’s whereabouts. There’s just something magical about giving a gift to a random stranger, especially when that gift is something as precious as a book. Like sending a grown child off to see the world, once the book is out of your hands, all you can do is wish it well and hope that once in awhile, it will write home.