Free Your Books!

In the past few months, I've developed a new obsession, and unlike endless games of Civilization or New York Times crossword puzzles, this one isn't just fun, but can actually benefit other people.

It's called BookCrossing. The idea is simple: give away your books, and see where they wind up.

This was one of my first "caught" releases; I left it at a bus stop in Austin, and someone picked it up, read it, and passed it on. Yay!

The reason it's so tempting to me, and why it's become nearly an obsession at times, is because literature is how I make my living. I teach about Native American literature, as well as about other literatures and creative writing, and one of the things I would love is to see more people reading some of the books that are important to me. Or, even, just to see more people reading books, period. But how am I going to do that? I can assign books to my students, sure, but I can't assign books to random passers-by. ("Excuse me, sir? You need to read Ceremony and be prepared to write an essay on it by next Wednesday. What? No, you don't know me. But I will find you for that essay.") What I can do, however, is give books away.

The first time I did it, I hadn't even heard of BookCrossing. I was waiting at my usual bus stop and got to talking with the other person waiting there, a young man from Senegal. I'd just taken a class in which we'd read a couple books by Senegalese authors, so we got to talking about literature. He was intrigued when I mentioned Native American literature, because he didn't know anything about it. We had talked about what sort of novels he liked, and what poets he thought were the best, so it was clear that this was someone who read a lot. I pulled Sherman Alexie's The Business of Fancydancing out of my backpack - one of two books I was teaching from that day, and the only one without my notes written all over it - and handed it to him, telling him that if he wanted to read it, it was his. He was initially taken aback, because who ever gives a stranger stuff for free?! But I explained that I always want more people to know about Native American literature, and that I was grateful for his interest and wanted to give him the book so he could find out more about it. And he was really pleased, and said he looked forward to reading it.

This is probably my most-traveled book; I got it in a trade from a fellow BookCrosser, then passed it on to my mother, and she passed it on to friends of hers. Five different people have journaled it so far. Whee!

When I got off the bus that day, I felt as if a big surge of energy had just passed through me in the form of that conversation and that book. Passing on a book to a perfect stranger like that felt amazing. In that short exchange, with Sherman Alexie's help, I'd given someone something to read that he would hopefully enjoy, and which might even give him a new outlook on poetry or on American Indian experiences. That's what teaching is all about, at its best: opening minds and helping people see new experiences. And at its best, BookCrossing also does exactly that.

So when I heard about BookCrossing, which is basically an organized way of giving away books and seeing where they end up, I fell in love with it immediately. I became a member (it's free), and because I was at my parents' house at the time, I started by registering books I'd read years ago and didn't need to keep hanging on to. I didn't feel the same connection to them as I felt to that Alexie book, but then, not every book I BookCross has to be one I'm deeply attached to. There are even some books I've BookCrossed that I haven't liked, because I hope the finder is someone who has different tastes than I do and will enjoy what I did not. And heck, making some space in their basement by giving away my old books sure made my parents happy, which is also a good thing!

I released Ceremony as part of an International Peace Day release challenge that BookCrosser 4-lele put together. No journalers yet, but it also wasn't at the bus stop the next day, so I suspect it at least got picked up!

Since that first experience, I've never handed a book directly to a total stranger. Sure, I've passed a few books on to friends who I hoped would become BookCrossers, but when I "wild release" books (the BookCrossing term for leaving books where strangers will find them), I don't have any contact with whoever picks up the book. In fact, I tend to get this weird feeling like I'm doing something wrong, and end up skulking around, furtively putting my book down, and then scurrying away. It's funny; I know there's absolutely nothing wrong with leaving free books around for other people to find, and in fact I think it's a great thing to do - and yet I just can't shake the feeling that I don't want anyone to see me doing it! But the more I do it, the less nervous I am about it - lately I've even had a few conversations about what I'm doing with waitstaff at restaurants I've released at, and the responses are always somewhere between bemused and enthusiastic, so I'm motivated to keep at it.

The thing that took the most getting used to is that not everyone is as excited as I am about the idea of BookCrossing, and this means that not everyone who finds a book will actually journal it. When it is first registered, each book is given a unique, 10-digit identification number, which you then write inside the cover of the book. When someone finds it, they can go to the BC site and enter the number, which allows them to journal about the book as well as see where it's been. Most people have response rates for wild releases somewhere between 10 and 30 percent - and it's usually more around 10 than 30. But I got lucky on one of my early releases, and that was a great feeling - a perfect stranger picked up one of my books, and read it! Woohoo! (My most-traveled book is here.)

I'm reading Good Omens right now as part of a book ring that BookCrosser amymaew put together. It's the first book ring I've done, though I suspect it will not be the last!

So now I'm addicted. I've left books on the bus, at bus stops, at the waiting room in the Writing Center where I work, in cafeterias and bars, and many other places. As I unpack more books (we've still got a lot of books in boxes from when we got flooded), I'm finding more to give away, and I keep planning new places and new strategies for releasing. I started a small book drive for Hurricane Katrina evacuees who were staying at the Austin Convention Center, and several BookCrossers sent me boxes of books for the ACC's library. It's an amazing community. I've gotten books for free, or in exchange for one of my books, from random people I don't know, simply because I said I was interested in one of their books and offered a trade, or because they found my wish list and happened to have one of those books available. One German BookCrosser even went and bought a book for me simply because we are fans of the same soccer team (which is what the book is about) - getting it was a complete surprise, and it absolutely made my week. I've also searched the wish lists to find people who wanted a book I had, and sent it to them - either in exchange for another book, or just because I want to make sure that a book I really liked is going to someone who's going to read and appreciate it.

BookCrosser winkide surprised me with this book, which I'd wanted to read for some time; it's the memoir of a guy who spends a season going to all the games (well, almost all the games) of the 1. FC Köln, which happens to be my favorite soccer team. I finished the book the day after I got it, and it's already en route to my father, also a fan of the team!

BookCrossing is a great thing, and - as you might have guessed! - part of the reason I'm posting this entry is because I'd love it if some of my readers became members. I've already turned my mother onto it, and possibly my father, as well as my friends Franci and Cindy, at least a little - so, how about you? It's all free (though if, like me, you are a sucker for pretty bookplates, they sell those and other release supplies in their store; whatever you buy helps support the site, but there's no obligation to do so, and you can also just print out or write your own labels). There's no minimum of books you need to register or release, ever; you can start with one, or even none. And you'll be a member of a supportive community full of interesting people, who are in it for the love of literature of all kinds.

So go and BookCross! Tell 'em I sent you (my BookCrossing member name is miriam2), and then go check out my bookshelf. Any available book you want (or even "To Be Read" book - I'll just move it to the top of my reading list and then send it off), just send me a message with your snail mail address; I will send the book to you for free, regardless of where you are, because that's what BookCrossing is all about. And because I will get that good feeling you get when you know your book is going to someone who will appreciate it (and who might even journal on it!).


8 November 2005

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