Leave Your Books on Subways and Park Benches: It’s All Part of the Grand Plan From BookCrossing.com

Categories: Business, Media

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An altruistic literary Web site allows me to rekindle a youthful passion (and give away things I don’t own)

By Joe Eskenazi

When I was a child, a favorite activity was to scrawl my phone number on a card lashed to a helium balloon and release the lighter-than-air sphere into the wild blue yonder. I nursed fantasies of receiving a phone call from exotic environs as remote as Lafayette, Orinda, or even Pittsburg.

Yet, if I was lucky enough to receive a call at all, it usually came from a neighbor six houses down who seemed impatient for me to come retrieve the damn balloon.

These days, kids probably don’t even experience that sort of limited joy; releasing balloons with numbers on them sounds a bit al-Qaeda-ish and would probably result in a stern talking-to from the local police sergeant and his little police sergeant bear.

And yet, adults need not give up upon the joy of releasing an object into the wild and waiting to hear back from far-off strangers. Except instead of balloons, you can do it with books.

When BookCrossing.com hit the scene a few years back...

a flurry of “Ain’t It Cool?”-type articles made the local papers – and, for the most part, no one has written a damn thing since. In the meantime, however, more than 630,000 people worldwide have registered 4.5 million books.

In a nutshell, here’s how it works. Random folks (like us) can “register” a book with the site, which assigns our copy a unique tracking number. We can then print out labels emblazoned with said tracking number, tape them to the book’s cover, and leave the tome in any cafe, Laundromat, or house of ill-repute we desire. Whoever finds the book can go online, punch in the tracking number, and voila! You can follow who’s reading your book as it gallivants its way across the city and country.

I came across A Twist in the Tale by Jeffrey Archer buried beneath the entrails of a Sunday Chronicle at the Java Beach Cafe at Judah and 48th. While I have no intentions of reading Archer’s masterwork (a great deal of the books circulating our city and everyone else’s via BookCrossing were probably bought en masse for a quarter a pound from a consignment sale –- but you can’t nitpick the quality of books left out for free). But the little label reading “I’m Not Lost … I’m a Wandering Book! Find out where I’ve been!” inspired me to participate.

Reaching over to the pile of freebie books menacing my desk, I quickly scooped up and registered Thirst: Fighting the Corporate Theft of Our Water by Alan Snitow, Deborah Kaufman and Michael Fox; Harry Haft: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano by Alan Scott Haft; and A Year in Provence, by Peter Mayle (truly, the assortment of books sent uninvited to a newspaper –- gratis -– is astounding).

I left the books at Montgomery BART, aboard an airport-bound train, and upon an outdoor table at Cafe Amici at Bush and Montgomery. Sadly, no one has yet logged in to BookCrossing to register the tomes, though the copy of A Year in Provence was gone within an hour of my dropping it off.

While leaving books around the city can induce a furtive sense of joy, picking them up is more of a challenge. If you wanted a specific book – let’s say The Catcher in the Rye – the most recently “released” copies are kicking around in Owensboro, Kentucky; Miami Shores, Florida; Chicago and Vilseck, Germany. That’s not convenient (Munich, maybe, but Vilseck?)

In San Francisco, roughly 40 books are still “at large” (including the three I released). And yet I just don’t feel like sprinting down to the Exploratorium to pick up a copy of Jingle Bell Bark: A Melanie Travis Mystery or careening over to Civic Center Station to rummage about for The Complete Astrology Book.

So I think my joy will be limited to randomly leaving my books (or, frankly, books that are not mine) about town. And if any members of San Francisco’s Finest are reading, please note: It’s not a bomb. It’s a book.


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