Book crossing makes the whole world a library

An avid reader, Vicki Long considers it cruel to let a book stand on a shelf gathering dust.

Instead, she says books should be savored, pondered and shared — over and over again.

She gives them the wings to fly away.

Long is a book crosser who leaves books in public places to be picked up and read by others who, hopefully, will do the same. She likes the idea of spreading literacy one book at a time, even in today's avalanche of Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers.

Long took up the hobby about 10 years ago after the founding of BookCrossing.com, a website that promotes and tracks book sharing worldwide. She "releases'' books throughout the Tampa Bay area, in coffee shops, parks, even the laundry room of her St. Pete apartment complex. Each book gets a tracking number and asks finders to register the "catch'' online and write comments. A sticker says in six languages, "I'm not lost — I'm on a journey.''

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Ron Hornbaker and Bruce Pedersen co-founded BookCrossing.com in 2001 after noticing that, unlike sites for tracking dollar bills and pictures, none existed for books, which evoke strong emotions.

The idea started as an experiment and took off globally among readers passionate about sharing books and connecting with people through prose. It's like a virtual library without the late fees or due date.

"It was a niche built around the two things that change your life: the people you meet and the literature you read,'' Pedersen said.

Based in Idaho, the website's membership of nearly 962,000 book crossers has held steady amid the explosion of ebooks, which now surpass print edition sales on Amazon. Rather than hoard books, a lot of people unload them for the thrill of it and hope that they find a good home.

"I think that says a lot about our the community, the emotions that people attach to books and our core values of connecting people through books,'' he said.

European countries and places with a strong coffee culture have the highest concentration of book crossers. Florida has about 16,500, but only a few active ones in the Tampa Bay area.

About 20 to 25 percent of all released books are caught, depending on the location. Some have traveled across oceans and continents. A title by German author Gerard Hoffnung has logged 562 hops. E.M. Forster's A Passage to India has had 130.

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Over the years, Long has released about 200 books into the wild from Lord of the Rings to By the Shore of Silver Lake, to name a few recently. The vast majority vanished without a trace. One found its way to Iran.

"It's like a big game of hide and seek,'' she said.

Long, 38, has loved books as long as she can remember. Her mother read her Golden books at bedtime. Her grandmother spent hours reading Harlequin romances.

As a student, she excelled in reading but ended up working with numbers as an accounting assistant. She devours about 50 books a year, everything from sci-fi to chick lit. Staring at spread sheets all day, a book quiets her mind better than any TV sitcom or reality show.

"It really relaxes me,'' she said. "If I don't read, I get antsy, kind of like an addict.''

Books just seem to find her. Friends bring her their castoffs or troll garage sales for bargains. Hundreds stored in plastic bins fill what should be her dining room.

Long was one of those people who initially balked at the allure of ebooks. She loves the look, touch and smell of bound paper and ink. How could a computer compete?

Then she tried a friend's e-reader. She bought a Kobo from Borders, then a Nook from Barnes & Noble. It's easy on the eyes and lighter than a hardcover.

But she can't give it away.

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Long has only a few keepers in her collection, including her favorite, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The rest, at some point, will get labeled and released to points unknown.

Next month, she plans to spend her entire vacation curled up on her couch with a stack of books. She's reading the Harry Potter series from start to finish.

At last check, she was deep into the Goblet of Fire, the fourth in the seven-book set.

Who reads it next is anyone's guess.

Book crossing lingo

Controlled release When you give or send a book to a specific individual, rather than for any random person who finds it.

Crossing Zone Sometimes called a release zone, it's any place where a book has been released by a member.

Official BookCrossing Zone A designated location, like a spot in a coffee shop approved by a manager, for exchanging books.

Wishlist A list of sought-after titles and authors among book crossers. Right now at the top? The Book Thief and anything by Jodi Picoult.

Wild release When you place a book in a random spot for someone to find, therefore creating a "book in the wild.''

Book crossing makes the whole world a library 09/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 5:36pm]

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