Traveling Books

This evening, on my way to the pizza place around the corner from my house (what a godsend—a place that sells gourmet pizza that you pick up raw and bake at home, albeit for a hefty price), I happened to spot a book on a bench.

Years ago, a neighborhood group raised money to install several attractive cast iron benches on the stretch of Connecticut Avenue just below Chevy Chase Circle, an alluring verdant island with a lovely fountain that unfortunately is inaccessible to pedestrians lacking the suicidal urge to cross three lanes of traffic so chaotic that even drivers hesitate to enter the fray. But I digress.

I hardly ever see anyone actually sitting on one of these cast iron benches, although that presumably was the idea when they were installed (citizens who contributed towards their installation received naming rights, and my favorite resembles an epitaph, with a man’s name, his dates, and the cryptic phrase “I tried”). Basically the benches just sit there looking decorative. Which is why, I suppose, the book caught my eye.

It was a hardback, black in color, with a typed note taped to its front cover. “Traveling Book,” the note said. “I’m not Lost—I’m on a journey.” Further down, this phrase was translated into Spanish, German, French, Italian, and (I think) Dutch. The remainder of the note explained that you could go to Bookcrossing.com and look up a certain ID number to find out where the book had been and “maybe make an entry as to where I’m going!!!” (The book seemed to enjoy referring to itself in the first person, not to mention using exclamation points with the abandon of an adolescent girl.)

Okay, I thought, intent on picking up my pizza before someone else ran off with it (I had placed an order in advance), if it’s still here on my way back, maybe I’ll take it. It was, and I did.

It turned out to be Red Rabbit by Tom Clancy, not a book I’d ever heard of or was likely to read. I don’t have anything against Tom Clancy (supposedly he’s used a friend of mine as the model for one of his characters), but I have a tower of books next to my bed, waiting to be read, and thrillers aren’t really my thing. But the note said, helpfully, “Pick me up, read (or not), and release me!”

Absolved of any obligation to actually read the book, I thought, why not? It was an intriguing idea, this “traveling book,” kind of like a message in a bottle. Tomorrow I’ll be going to an airport, as it happens. What might happen if I left (or “released”) it there, I wondered? Who would pick it up? Where would they take it? Would one of those foreign language renditions of “I’m not lost” actually come in handy?

And where, I wondered, had this book already been? As soon as I got back to the house I logged on to Bookcrossing.com to find out. To my disappointment, I was actually the first person to pick it up. It had been “wild released … somewhere in Maryland, USA” earlier that day, by “donhunt,” a resident of Chevy Chase, MD. Chances are that “somewhere in Maryland” was actually Chevy Chase, MD, which is only a few hundred feet from the bench where I picked it up (the MD-DC border runs through the middle of Chevy Chase Circle). Allowing for a bit of poetic license, it’s possible that “donhunt” actually left the book on the bench where I found it.

I also discovered, while on Bookcrossing.com, that it’s a “social networking site” that’s been around for over 10 years and has as its mission the aim of “connecting people through books.” There are over 1,175,000 “Book Crossers” (of which I’m now one) and over nine million books in circulation.

Book Crossing also describes itself as a “celebration of literature and a place where books get new life.” I suppose this is true if the people who pick them up actually read them, and even more so if they avail themselves of the opportunity to post comments about the book on the website. Even with all the books gathering dust on my night table, I might have been tempted to read some other book (possibly “How to Toilet Train Your Cat,” listed as one of the “recently released” Book Crossing titles—I’d actually settle for a book on how to get your cat to use the litter box). But the book I happened to pick up just didn’t exert that powerful a pull.

Still, it might prove irresistible to the next person to pick it up, possibly someone about to embark on a long plane flight without (horrors!) anything to read, someone who is less averse than I am to schlepping a hardback book on a trip. Whoever it is, I hope they’ll record what happens on Bookcrossing.com.

Say what you will about e-books being the wave of the future—this is one thing you’ll never be able to do with them.

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