Sunday, July 8, 2007

Catch and Release

I went fly fishing for the first time two summers ago. I got to see the catch and release ethic up close and personal, as I managed to catch (and release) two river trout. This is the extent of my knowledge about freshwater, or any water, for that matter, fishing. So instead I'm going to write about the journey of books, but not in a "How are books made?" PBS-special kind of a way. More in a quasi-Big Brother-esque kind of a way. Sort of.

Several years ago, a work colleague was cleaning out her bookshelves at home in anticipation of a move. I was a beneficiary of the spring cleaning and came into possession of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran. It was registered with something called BookCrossing. BookCrossing turned out to be something that a geography geek (aka, me) could love. It starts with someone registering a book and receiving a book ID. Then, when that person is done with the book, it gets "released," either in a "controlled" manner or "into the wild." The location of the release is supposed to be documented on the website. A controlled release occurs when you know who is going to receive the book. It can be as easy as giving it to a friend or to the next person on a list of people who have said they'd like to receive the book -- a "book ring." I haven't figured out what motivates one to join a book ring, other than to get unexpected mail one day consisting of the book. Concededly, real snail mail is pretty fun to get -- all I get are Pottery Barn catalogs and invitations to weddings that I've known about a year in advance. Regarding book rings, as far as I can tell, the public library tends to be a little more efficient (even in DC) when it comes to the so-called "catch and release" of books. What's more interesting are the releases into the wild.

A release into the wild is, essentially, just leaving a labeled book somewhere for someone to hopefully find. BookCrossing strongly discourages the release of books in airports and on planes for "security reasons." Obviously, the folks that run that website have not lived in Washington anytime recently -- throwing out trash in a Metro station was a security risk until earlier this year, when the trash cans (in a new and improved bombproof design) returned. Public address announcements constantly warn passengers not to abandon belongings on the trains and buses. Like that would really make a difference to someone intent on carrying out a terrorist act. But I digress.

So, a book is released. Hopefully, someone "catches" the book after it is released, logs onto BookCrossing and then documents how and where it was received, maybe how the reader felt about the book, and whether it will be released or join someone's permanent collection. The end, unless you're like me and intrigued by the physical journey a book could take, especially if its journey is not preplanned. The idea that a book I left at the Jordan Pond House Restaurant in Acadia National Park in September 2006 could be picked up and travel to Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, go to Madison, and wind up in Springfield, Illinois, is intriguing to me. Unlike books passed around via book rings, where book recipients are at the very least connected by a mutual interest and diligence in participating in, I assume, some sort of BookCrossing-created virtual social network, books that travel by releases into the wild have a less certain fate and may wind up in the trash after one reading. The rewards, I think, are greater, though. If a book forwarded outside a book ring is picked up by more than one reader, the book's journey is one that reflects the interconnectedness of humans through everyday actions. And that's pretty rad.

Recently, I hunted around BookCrossing to review the histories of the most-traveled books. Sadly, it appears that the most-traveled books are in book rings, suggesting that books that are released into the wild are either forever lost or retrieved by those with little interest in participating in BookCrossing. When one releases a book into the wild, one may update the book's online presence with notes as to where and when the book was released, and a fellow reader may then go "hunting" for the book. As of this post, 48 books were released in DC within the last 30 days; the most recent release was 5 days ago. Someone released 10 of them in his or her back alley....uh, I'm unlikely to go into a back alley to find a book. After some more clicking, I found that this particular bookcrosser has left also left books in the ladies room at work....and someone else "caught" the book. Now, the restroom at my office isn't exactly a Superfund site, but I'm not sure I'd pick up a homeless book from the loo. Regardless, you get my point that many of these books released to the wild have a greater chance of making it to the landfill than to the hands of someone amenable to the BookCrossing concept.

With such little chance of randomly making it into the hands of someone willing to log a book into BookCrossing, what is the motivation for a wild release? Eternal optimism? Geography geekdom? Receiving a free, non-gifted book? For me, yes, all three.

I'm curious about the fate of the copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran that I caught and released in Maine. I wasn't registered with BookCrossing and the time and have since lost the paper on which I wrote the book ID. Maybe I'll have the chance to redeem myself. An advance reading copy of Love in the Present Tense by Catherine Ryan Hyde and published in 2006 was laying on a table in my building lobby. It's now sitting next to me, with its new BookCrossing ID number and a brief message written inside the front cover. After I read and release it, we'll see if we ever hear from it again. I'm betting no, but one never knows...

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