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The Commonspace

Apr 2003 / communities :: email this story to a friend

Bound by Books
By Amanda E. Doyle

What's that book — Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones — doing, just lying there? I mean, sure, I've been wanting to read it, but whose is it? And why is it just sitting on top of the gas pump? Maybe if I pick it up and look around, the person who left it will realize it's still sitting there…wait! "I'm a free book; take me home!" What exactly is going on here?

As easy as that, you're BookCrossing.

How that book got in your hot little hands: someone, somewhere found a book she was ready to let loose into the world, and registered it on the BookCrossing website; the book was assigned a unique code number (its BCID), and that same someone put a label or sticker or just wrote inside the cover, giving the book's number and the website, along with instructions to read the book and then log it back in, with both your thoughts and where you plan to leave it so that it can continue its journey in the wide world.

Why that book was registered by someone for you to find: well, the reasons people participate in BookCrossing are as varied as the books themselves (everything from cookbooks to kids' books to books in foreign languages, the entire Left Behind series, the aforementioned The Lovely Bones and much more). It's been likened to a global book club, with the better-traveled volumes having numerous entries tracing the impressions a particular book has made on people in far-flung places. Some like the concept of a free, and free-form, library of serendipity. Surely some BookCrossers (or BCers, or BXers) have just relished getting that box of books out of the basement forever!

And for at least one BookCrosser, involvement literally started out as a matter of life and death. Robin Payton, known as "4libros" on the site, is a legend in the BC world: with — at last count — 1882 books released, and 473 "caught," (or re-entered by folks who found them), she is the most prolific BookCrosser on planet Earth. Payton lives in Saint Peters, Mo., and does much of her releasing in the St. Louis region. Her status is as dramatic as the story of her entry into this hobby.

"Last March 11, I had a really bad day," she said. On that day just over a year ago, her physician advised her that multiple serious health problems left her with little chance of surviving more than two more years. At 40, that's the kind of news that can totally change your life. She went home and undertook two projects immediately: first, she began the Atkins diet (which she still follows, and which she credits with a drastic improvement in her health) and second, she registered on, which she'd just read about in the March, 2002 issue of Book magazine.

"I thought this was a way I could make a mark, that these books out there would be my legacy," she said. In fact, her philosophy on book releasing took the shape of a poem in a recent entry on her section of the BookCrossing site:

Calling for attention like corn stalks that have grown too tall.
I give them all away,
Planting seeds,
Hoping for fertile minds,
Toiling against the blindness of strangers,
Taking comfort in a future crop.

Payton leaves books in ATM vestibules, on gas pumps, in parks, in waiting rooms, in the window ledge at Schnucks. At Christmas, she wrapped books and left them in a laundromat, and still gets great pleasure out of seeing children there reading books she left.

Thanks in no small part to Payton's efforts, St. Louis is the BookCrossing-est city in Missouri, beating even Kansas City, where BookCrossing started as the brainchild of software engineer Ron Hornbaker, who was inspired by tracking sites like and Missouri, in fact, is a hotbed of book swapping, with more than 5,000 books currently "in the wild," in BC parlance. That's second only to California, well above such populous states as Texas, Florida and New York. (Pity the poor Isle of Man, where just one book rides around, last seen on the #5 bus from Douglas to Ramsey, or Gambia, where a copy of Nelson Mandela's "Long Walk to Freedom" has languished since December, 2001.) Worldwide, more than 100,000 people are registered BookCrossers, with some 315,000 books (and counting) signed in so far.

St. Louis BookCrossers — at least a small nucleus of them — are a pretty cohesive group, maintaining a Yahoo! Group and meeting at least once a month with huge stacks of books to swap and ongoing discussions about good releases, any recent catches (which are the Holy Grail of BookCrossing), good reads and so on. New members trickle into the group all the time, after hearing about BC. Kathie Davis, a.k.a. "Sonora," read an article in the Utne Reader last summer; Michelle Hatfield, "ViolentEcstasy," heard about it "from a friend who doesn't even BookCross."

Kathy Condon, "Ositakat," was inspired to "just put out books I really liked and wanted people to know about; it's just a fun thing to do." She's left books in movie theaters, on pool tables, in women's restrooms...all in the name of getting good books into the world.

For a distinctly Show-Me State twist on the BookCrossing phenomenon, the meeting's regulars have chosen a fun project to mark April, 2003, the second anniversary of BookCrossing's founding. The Mark Twain Project, an homage to one of our state's most well-known writers (and a world-renowned curmudgeon), will see a mass release of more than a hundred Twain volumes on Saturday, April 19. They've been gathering books for the occasion, scouring thrift stores, book sales and even appealing to other BCers around the world, who've mailed in copies for the big day. On that day and the few after, keep your eyes peeled while you're out and about in the metro area — your next good read could be right around the corner.

Amanda Doyle is the editor of, and is so into BookCrossing that she has "gone hunting" for specific books the moment she saw them released. You can get in on the fun at the next meeting of the St. Louis-area BookCrossers, at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 22nd, at The Commonspace, 615 N. Grand in Grand Center.

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