Grace Wynne-Jones on a craze that could make a copy of Sense and Sensibility mellow out in California and then have it fly off to Florence, having been found in a phone booth in Prague. Wonder what Jane Austen would make of that?
These days, you can find fab summer reads on park benches and in cafes, as well as in bookstores and libraries. That's because there's an eager and growing bunch of book lovers in Ireland and abroad who want to make the whole world a library. They leave books in public places for others to enjoy and "release" in a literary version of pass the parcel. The quirky pastime is called "bookcrossing" and the term has even made it into The Concise Oxford English Dictionary.
To join in the random acts of literacy, all you have to do is surf onto www.bookcrossing.com where you'll find all the info you need. Membership is free and books that are released are each given their own identity number and come with printed labels that often declare: "I'm free... please take me!" Whoever finds the book can log their discovery online and share their thoughts about it. The book's previous owner is also told of its whereabouts by email, and this often leads to online friendships and a fascination with where the book may end up next. Members are also notified by email when a book is released near where they live.
"The social side is hugely important" admits Dublin BookCrosser, Liz Power.
Ireland has 2,684 BookCrossers and some of them regularly get together in Dublin, Galway and Cork and there'll soon be a trip to meet up with BookCrossers in Belfast. There are meetings and annual days out and some members travel together to BookCrossing conventions abroad. If you want to find out more about BookCrossing activities then log on to www.bookcrossing.com.
There are currently 683,896 BookCrossers in 130 countries. No wonder it has been called the world's biggest book club. It can also be pretty influential. According to an article in The Times, one publisher in America even released 1,000 copies of Tony Hillerman's Skinwalkers to promote the tied-in film.
Members seem to love BookCrossing's championing of serendipity, generosity and gleeful quirkiness and have left books in all sorts of places. Tony McMahon, for example, admits to having released a book on Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands and the Juliet Balcony in Verona. He says that with BookCrossing he can "talk online to anyone, anywhere, on any subject and I will get responses from people in more than 40 countries". This chat can be anonymous. Tony's online name is SirRoy, in honour of Roy Keane.
The BookCrossing phenomenon started in 2001 and the website describes it as "a labour of love that was conceived and is maintained by Humankind Systems Inc", a US software and internet development company.
"I guess you could say it's the Karma of literature," explains BookCrossing's American co-founder, Ron Hornbaker. "Releasing your books 'into the wild' and tracking their progress and the lives they touch is just more fascinating, and more fulfilling, than hoarding them on a shelf somewhere."
Yes, it seems that though reading is a solitary activity, it is also becoming increasingly sociable. Great books can lead to great conversations, which is why BookCrossing and Irish book clubs have so many members. "What people see in a character can reveal a lot about who they are themselves," says book-club member Deborah Martin. "It's fascinating the way different things in a book jump out at different people."
Grace Wynne-Jones' novel Ordinary Miracles is published by Accent Press, www.gracewynnejones.com