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Have Books, Will Travel

A Web site makes a global game of tomes purposely left behind, then found

July 23, 2002|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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'll be found by strangers.

And, if you really want to make the day of the person who left it, you'll not only pick up the book and read it, you'll 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, bookcrossing.com, 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 restrooms, 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

Lydia Ruark, a West L.A. psychologist, has left more than 20 books around the city--in dressing rooms, grocery stores and flower shops.

Peri Doslu, a Santa Monica yoga instructor, has dropped three--one on top of a telephone booth, one on a rock wall at Mono Lake, 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: 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 the sidewalk along Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz. 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 Buster's coffee shop in South Pasadena 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.

Giddy with the fun of indulging my sneaky side, I headed home. The only thing to do was wait. 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% to 15% of the books people release are "successful," meaning they have been picked up by a stranger who then logs on to the site.

"It's sort of like fishing. If you caught a fish every castoff of the line, it would get boring," said Hornbaker. "Even the ones you don't hear from, you have to keep the faith that maybe they found a good home. It's better than sitting on a bookshelf."

Whether or not a book is picked up depends on a lot of things, Hornbaker said, notably, how well it is marked, what kind of book it is, where it's placed, who picks it up and whether the finder has Internet access.

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

That's what Ruark 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.

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