Thursday, September 26, 2002

Practicing Free Love of Books
Bookcrossers read 'em and leave 'em for strangers to enjoy

By Susan Carpenter
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

September 17, 2002

If you happen to find "On the Road" at a gas station or "Who Moved My Cheese?" next to a hunk of Gouda in your grocery store, it might not be an accident. You could be the unwitting beneficiary of a "bookcrosser" - a person who intentionally leaves books in public places, hoping they will be found by strangers.

And, if you really want to make the day of the person who left it, you will not only pick up the book and read it, you will log onto a Web site and let the bookcrosser know.

The idea of leaving a book for someone else to find and enjoy is not new - some folks have been leaving just-finished books in airports and on buses since the dawn of hurry-up-and-wait. Creating a system for book-leavers to find out what happened to those books adds a new twist to the practice - and raises the stakes. Would you rather be known as the person who left behind a steamy Danielle Steel novel or the magical realism of "One Hundred Years of Solitude"?

Something of a phenom among readers with a taste for mischief and a touch of altruism,, the Web site that tracks books "released into the wild," has accumulated more than 18,000 members since its inception last year, and averages 112 new participants daily.

Its members have scattered more than 42,000 novels, self-help books, memoirs, technical manuals and biographies in 45 countries, leaving them in public rest- rooms, movie theaters, coffee shops or anywhere that tickles their fancy. The result: a worldwide living library.

Robin Payton, a St. Louis homemaker, has let go of more than 400, mostly in self-service laundries and restaurants.

Peri Doslu, a Santa Monica, Calif., yoga instructor, has dropped three - one on top of a telephone booth, one on a rock wall at remote Mono Lake in the eastern Sierra Nevada, and another in one of the studios where she teaches.

"I'm always looking for places to pass on books," said Doslu, 39. "To think my book's going to go off and have this future, and I might even get to know a little bit about it down the road, I really find enchanting."

Enchanting? This called for a test case.

I signed on and logged in, giving myself the screen name MissPaigeTurner, then registered four novels. After receiving identification numbers for each, I wrote them on bookmarks that explained how bookcrossing works and placed them between the pages of each book. I spent the rest of the afternoon looking for spots to leave my books.

My first drop was on the bus I rode downtown in Los Angeles: I left Lemony Snicket's "The Bad Beginning" on the back seat. A few hours later, I dropped Iceberg Slim's "Mama Black Widow" on a sidewalk. Next, I stopped in at Banana Republic, tried on a shirt and left a copy of "The Nanny Diaries" in the dressing room. Later, I stopped at a coffee shop for a lime rickey. After downing the last slushy bits and looking around to make sure no one was watching, I put a copy of "Madame Bovary" on the table and made a quick exit.

No one ran after me to say, "Hey! You forgot something!" No one looked at me as if I were the Unabomber. In my mission as the phantom book leaver, I was, as far as I knew, completely unobserved.

I checked my e-mail the following day, expecting to find a message from the Web site telling me my books had been found. No such luck.

Ditto for the following day - and the next two weeks.

I still haven't heard a peep.

That's typical, said Ron Hornbaker, a 36- year-old software developer from St. Louis, who came up with the idea for BookCrossing's Web site. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of the books people release are "successful," meaning they have been picked up by a stranger who then logs on to the site.

My books might have had better luck if, when registering them, I had penned a release note for the Web site, giving "hunters" details on which books I'd left, where and when.

That's what Lydia Ruark, a West Los Angeles psychologist, did when she released "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" in a Nordstrom dressing room in May. Within a week, she received an e-mail from BookCrossing.

A Canadian woman, who had been with her daughter trying on clothes, found the book. Twelve hours later, Ruark got a second e-mail, saying her copy of "The Lady and the Monk" by Pico Ayer had been found in the sushi section of a Wild Oats grocery store.

"I thought I'd hit the jackpot," said Ruark, 49, who signed up for BookCrossing because "it sounded fun and a little bit subversive."

Half of the fun for bookcrossers is figuring out where to leave the books, said Hornbaker, who left his first book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," in a deli. His ideas have since evolved.

Now he's reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," which he plans to "throw out the window to a hitchhiker."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Co. newspaper.
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.