Steal This Book
By Jeff Berg
In Las Cruces, a community surrounded by top-secret military operations, a non-military secretive society also functions. Not nearly as covert or dysfunctional as any government agency, but certainly a lot more honest and fun, the members of BookCrossing have but one goal, and that is to spread the words, or more officially, to make the "whole world a library."
I recently was invited to accompany an "agent" of BookCrossing on one of his missions. That being to subversively place a book he'd recently read in a semi-secret location, in hopes that someone else would find it, read it and pass that book, or another, along in a similar manner for other readers to enjoy.
Agent "Libre-Muncher" (you pick your own screen name when you become a BookCrosser) is a newcomer to this group. He had sent me an e-mail offering information on this fast-growing hobby.
Not only in Las Cruces but nationwide, BookCrossing is a relatively new phenomenon. Ron Hornbaker, a partner in Humankind Systems Inc., a software and Internet development company, was tired of working with e-commerce sites. He was in need of a change, and found it in 2001 when he started BookCrossing. It was time to give something back, he thought.
Hornbaker liked the idea of Phototagging, another odd computer-oriented activity, wherein disposable cameras are left here and there, with instructions for the finder to take the camera, shoot a picture, register it online, and pass it on; the person taking the last shot mails the camera back in a pre-addressed envelope. Then there's the even odder Where's George, a Web site where you can punch in a serial number of a piece of paper money, and if it has been registered by a previous handler, the travel history of the bill comes up. The site includes dates, miles traveled, and sometimes contact information for the person who had the bill before. Hopefully not a counterfeiter.
The idea behind BookCrossing is to follow the "three Rs": Read a book. Preferably a good one. Go to the BookCrossing Web site, www.bookcrossing.com, and Register the book, which requires you to become an official BookCrosser. Registering the book gives it an ID number; then you must label the book, with a sticker you can download from the Web site. (The site also offers a few BookCrossing trinkets for sale.) And then Release the book—give it away, leave it at a doctor's office, squirrel it away in a coffee shop. Just about anywhere that has human traffic is game. Another suggestion is to do a "themed release." This is to, let's say, leave a book about dogs at a vet's office, perhaps a cookbook at your favorite cafe (although a sensitive cafe owner or chef could take offense at this if they find the book), or maybe clandestinely slip a copy of The Tao of Leadership into Congressman Steve Pearce's office.
To introduce me to BookCrossing, Agent Libre-Muncher and I decided to meet at an undisclosed location. Fortunately, we decided to tell one another where to meet, otherwise this article would have been a lot harder to write.
Libre-Muncher, or Bob Richey for short, is a retired electrical engineer who has lived in Las Cruces for 35 years, after arriving here with the military. He shows me a printout of his BookCrossing "bookshelf" that includes a bit of history about himself, books registered and reviewed, books that are still "in the wild" (not found yet), and referrals he has made to others about BookCrossing activities.
He tells me that he has hidden 35 books so far in his career as a BookCrosser, and has been a member for only two months. For this sortie, he has chosen The Forest, a fat fiction tome written by Edward Rutherford. And thus far he has followed two of the three Rs.
Richey has taken advantage of the free downloads of stickers to help mark and register the books. He uses the bookmarks to offer a few more details, and a little sticky note to slap on the front of the work to let employees of stores and such know that the book is not lost, but rather that it is yearning to travel. These three items will accompany Rutherford's work.
And please note that this pastime is not for people who cannot attend to details. The BookCrossing Web site serves up an incredible amount of features and options, although you can just do the basics if you like. In addition to the solo BookCrossers, there are also nearly 700 informal BookCrossing groups that meet around the country, including one in Las Cruces.
The local BookCrossers group seems to be struggling a bit however, since they do not have a leader, and the February meeting was cancelled. But in Las Cruces alone, there were 120 registered BookCrossers as of late January.
If you want to join a group, you touch on another linked Web site called Meet Up. Meetup.com has listings of groups for nearly every activity you can imagine, including Las Cruces-based Meet Up groups for people who admire or think they are vampires (!!), paganism, bull mastiff owners, ferret owners, Angelina Jolie admirer (there was only one), and seven folks who listed in the Impeach Bush Meet Up Group. I found myself wondering if a group of boxing fans getting together would be called a Beat Up Meet Up group?
BookCrossing is still catching on with the public at large, as only about 20 percent of the books that have been placed have been found and noted on the BookCrossing Website. BookCrossing does, however, have more than 325,000 registered members, who have placed 1.7 MILLION books around the universe.
As Richey and I finish our conversation, he puts the finishing touches on the soon-to-be-homeless book. He surreptitiously slides it onto the chair across from him at our table, and we tiptoe out to the parking lot.
I return to the undisclosed location (which I had remembered to disclose to myself) the next day, and check for the book that Libre-Muncher had left behind.
It is gone. Did another BookCrosser check the Web site and follow the instructions that Richey had left as to where to find this book? Or was it perhaps someone else who will be introduced to a novel that may soon be on its way to Silver City, which still awaits its first BookCrosser?
Or was it you?