Free Books in Public Places
Programs Encourage Random Acts of Bibliophilic Kindness
Listen to Neda Ulaby's report.
May 18, 2002 -- In some ways, it's hard to assail the big chain bookstores. Sure, they're huge. Sure, they are accused of putting many independent bookshops out of business. Sure, their display areas are all bought and paid for by publishers. But they do stock a vast selection, and they do usually have what you are looking for.
But for many bibliophiles, that advantage is also a disadvantage. The big chains offer a wide selection, but little in the way of serendipity. With small, quirky bookstores disappearing fast, people have to take their serendipity where they can find it.
Lately, thanks partly to the Internet, some people are finding it in the oddest places: bus stops, restaurants, their own front porches. And sometimes, ironically, even in the chain bookstores themselves.
As Neda Ulaby reports for Weekend Edition Saturday, all this comes thanks to an online trend that has people committing "random acts of kindness" and then tracking the results on the Net. The site BookCrossing.com, for instance, links a loosely organized collection of people who share books. It works like this: someone who wants to share a book registers it on the Web site, prints out a label and puts it in the book. The book is then placed (members call it "released") in some public place, and the winds of fate take over. Theoretically, whoever finds the book will go to the site and record where they found it, and what they thought of it. Then they'll pass it on.
Another effort, called Free Words, places Sal Randolph's book-length free verse poem of the same title among the stacks in libraries and bookstores.
Lisa Fishler, who is also a member of BookCrossing, discovered Free Words when she was browsing at a Brooklyn bookstore. She was walking past the Oprah Book Club display. "I never look at that section," she says, "but there was this tiny pink volume sort of sticking out in the display." She opened it, and found a 13,000-word stream of consciousness. Definitely not an Oprah book. "And I said, 'this is really bizarre.' This is exactly the kind of thing that I look for when I come to bookstores, but I never find it."
Where's George? does for U.S. currency what BookCrossing.com does for books. Sort of.
PhotoTag has people anonymously passing around a disposable camera. Pix end up on the Web site after the camera, having been dropped postage-paid into a mailbox, is returned.
Wired News asks: "Are Authors Abused by Used?"