WHEN KARIN MILLER FOUND
a paperback abandoned in a Dallas conference room, she counted herself lucky. After all, the book, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, was by one of her favorite authors, science fiction novelist Sheri S. Tepper. But there was more than luck at work in Miller’s find. "I noticed this note on the front cover that said something like, ‘Please read me. I’m not lost. I’m traveling around trying to make friends,’ " Miller says. "I thought, This is like finding a Cracker Jack box with a really great prize."
The prize was more than a single book; it was an invitation to play a part in an unlikely global sociology experiment spearheaded by a Web site called BookCrossing.com. The brainchild of a group of Kansas City–based computer consultants, BookCrossing.com encourages people to experience what it terms "the karma of literature" by registering books at the site and then depositing them in public places, like coffee shops, airplane seat pockets, and park benches. Part book club, part behavioral study, part note-in-a-bottle exercise, it’s a concept entirely made possible by the interconnectivity of the Internet.
It works like this: Every book registered at BookCrossing.com receives a unique ID number and a registration card to be printed and attached inside the front cover. The card briefly explains the BookCrossing.com mission and directs anyone who finds a book to its dedicated online journal page. There, recipients can post where they came across the book and—if they read it—what they thought of it.
But in keeping with a favorite BookCrossing.com mantra, finders are not encouraged to become keepers. "We call it ‘read and release,’" says co-founder Ron Allen Hornbaker. "It gives people a way to share their books without feeling like they’re losing something."
Hornbaker’s site makes no money, doesn’t advertise, and relies entirely on word-of-mouth promotion. So far, that low-key strategy is yielding good results; as of early May, it was hosting nearly 15,000 individual book entries from 4,300 members.
One of those members is Moira Lynn Mefein, a freelance writer from Daytona Beach, Florida, who planted the Tepper novel that Miller found in Dallas. Mefein estimates that she and her younger sister have put half a dozen books into circulation, and almost all of them have been retrieved and passed along.
"To me, the important thing is to select for release books about which you’re passionate," Mefein says. "If you really like a book, and you’re selective about where you drop it, the chances are someone will find it and respond."
Those responses, though, aren’t always predictable. Just ask writer Tess Crebbin, who, during a recent trip to Munich, tried to leave a copy of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in a popular sushi bar. "I left the restaurant and all of a sudden there’s this commotion and a Japanese waiter is chasing me down the street saying, ‘You left your book!’" Crebbin says. "I told him, ‘Take it back.’ He looked at me like I was crazy."
As for Mefein’s copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, it was last seen with Miller’s sister on a trip to Atlanta. "She was going to leave the book there when she was finished with it," says Miller. "I can’t wait to see who gets it next."
From Book (March/April 2002). Subscriptions: $20 (6 issues) from Box 37601, Boone, IA 50037-0601.