Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Website: bookcrossing.com

My mother forbade me and my siblings from joining the scouts or girl guides. The ‘little Hitlers’ she used to call them. You can understand why: the pseudo-military uniforms, the silly salutes, the group discipline and the repressed sexuality. But fascists inevitably do ‘good works’ for society in a paradoxical attempt to give themselves a humane face, so we were subjected to things like ‘bob a job’ week (even my mother was fooled by that one) and helping little old ladies to cross the street (my grandmother dished out a black eye or two when enthusiastic young lads tried that on her). Still, nothing like a good deed every day to maintain your smugness level, and fascists are invariably smug.

I was reminded of this good deed approach to life when I found the bookcrossing website. The concept is simple. You register a book, stick a bookcrossing label into it, dispose of it (give it away, leave it in a public place), and then track its subsequent life as members report where they have found left books and notify the site when they release books ‘into the wild’. Now, passing a book to someone is clearly a good deed, but what’s the point of throwing a good deed away on anonymity when you can track and display your generosity on the web?

Dubious motivations aside, the bookcrossing idea has some positives. It helps to circulate ideas and shares the pleasure of reading, it saves you money you would otherwise spend on bookshelves to store things you will never read again or maybe haven’t even read in the first place, it can get books to people who could otherwise not afford them, and it provides a sound justification for littering in public. Authors and publishers might get a bit panicky about lost sales, but the system is really just a large free-range public library.

The weakness in the concept is the fact that it so obviously relies on books – paper books. Sales of these are falling rapidly in comparison with e-books, so the idea seems to have a limited life expectancy. Sharing e-books is easy via e-mail, but that would lose the randomness of the bookcrossing concept. And leaving a memory stick somewhere in public with your pre-loved e-book isn’t likely to catch on. The website itself could become a repository for old e-books, but I’m sure publishers would be decidedly unhappy with that. File sharing? Yikes!

Bookcrossing is a nice idea and the website is worth investigating, but if the days of hard copy books are numbered, so are the days of our site.

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