Crossing paths and trading pagesUnless you have a religious attachment to your books, you’re probably not a repeat reader. The fate of most books, it seems, is to be read once and then resigned to the shelves, where they stand as proof that their owner is a cultured and well-read person.
To the “People who give wings to books,” however, this ignominious end is avoided. These 6,000 generous bibliophiles comprise Korea’s “book-crossing” community, an online group that shares books the way writers of chain-letters trade mail. Started in the United States in 2001 by a bibliophile named Ron Hornbaker, the concept of book-crossing is simple: a person reads a book and then passes it on to a total stranger (or another club member), who then does the same.
A book-crossing thus starts with a book being “freed.” It isn’t easy to let go of a book, particularly in Korea, where books are placed in the top eschelon of one’s personal property. Once begun, however, book-crossing can become habitual. A club member simply places a book in a spot with a lot of pedestrian traffic, leaves a note explaining why the book is there (to be taken) and adds the group’s Web site address. Assuming the book’s finder agrees with the book-crossing concept, the volume is read and abandoned once again.
As the members of the online cafe see it, book-crossing is about trust, in both people and society. One member said that “freeing” books makes her feel as if she were participating in a Buddhist ritual of setting captive animals free. Not that the group is particularly profound ― most members just think it’s fun.
Currently, 880 books have been put into circulation by the online community. Since the cafe’s opening in February 2004, at least one book has been “given wings” every day.
Hwang Mi-ae, 31, has been with the community almost since its inception. The feeling of parting with some of her favorite books ― including a collection of short stories by the novelist Kim Seung-ok ― has been bittersweet, she says. “I couldn’t just walk away and leave my book behind. I kept looking back, hoping its meets lots of good people on its travels.”
Park A-rum, 24, however, found the first time she tried to free her book that it wasn’t so easy. “I decided to leave my book on a bench in a subway station. Since I was curious about who would pick it up, I tried to pretend that I wasn’t the owner, that I was doing other stuff. But a woman next to me kept looking at me and then at the book, and then back to me again. I figured that if I tried to walk away without the book that she’d say something.” In the end, Ms. Park boarded the subway with book in hand.
“I left my book at an ATM near my place,” said Lee Min-jeong, 31, another cafe member. “I wanted to see who would take the book, so I waited outside.” She waited for a long time for someone to take the book, but no one did. She took a walk around the block. When she came back, the book was gone. “I’m glad that someone took the book, but it’s too bad I wasn’t there to see it,” she said.
According to Cha Woo-jin, 30, the organizer of the Web site, the simple act of leaving a book can result in some not-so-simple experiences. “One person was scolded by a senior citizen for throwing the book away. Another person wound up connecting with an old acquaintance who was on the reader list. One person even got his old book back.”
As memories go, though, nothing quite compared to the feeling a member has when the book’s finder writes what are known as “found-book reports.”
The joy of freeing, it turns out, is not as much fun as the joy of finding. Many of the people who find the books log on to the Web site and leave messages reporting their discovery; For the book’s liberator, that message is what makes the giving worthwhile. Ms. Park said that the first time she read that a book she had freed was found, the feeling was like learning of the whereabouts of an abducted child.
“Some people even hang around spots where they expect a book to be freed after they hear that one will be ‘released’,” said Mr. Cha. “When you’re waiting around for a book to be released, you kind of feel like some kind of secret agent on a mission.”
Within five days of the community’s launch, the first book was liberated by a member nicknamed “Amoi.” The book was a novel by the writer Choi Seung-ho; soon afterwards, other members began releasing their books. There was no report of the books being found, though. Some members worried that the books had been tossed into trash cans. Others wondered whether Korea was ready for this kind of club.
Finally, on Feb. 15, a person reported on the Web site that he had found the book “Tuesdays with Morrie” at Gangnam subway station. “Thank you,” he wrote, “I’ll release the book in another place as soon as I’m done reading it.” Cafe members were enthralled.
“It’s hair-raising,” one wrote.
“It’s more than just impressive,” another said.
Since then, books left in Seoul have traveled around the country. “Last summer, a high school student who lives in Daegu posted an entry on the cafe,” said Mr. Cha. “She said she found ‘The Mustache’ by Emmanuel Carrere at Seocho subway station when she came to Seoul to take a college entrance exam.”
It was the first “liberated” book to be reported outside of Seoul. The book’s original owner had left it at Ewha Womans University station, and she was pleased to hear that it traveled down to Daegu.
Members of the online cafe hope more people participate in the movement. “You feel more emotion by crossing a book than by reading it, especially when you hear that your book was found somewhere or when you find a traveling book,” Ms. Hwang said. “Your heart is full knowing that you’re living in a sound and healthy community.”
“I don’t understand why people would hesitate to take a book for free, when after all, books in the library are frequently stolen,” Mr. Cha said. “If you see a book that’s being crossed, take it without hesitation. All you need to do is to read it and free it again.”
by Nam Koong-wook, Park Sung-ha