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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 8, 2010

While books take us to far-away places, they travel there, too

For millennia, books have been physical objects. The first books were tablets of wood or bamboo or clay, each indigenous to the culture that wrote upon them. Then came scrolls of silk or papyrus. By the end of antiquity, the scrolls gave way to collections of sheets.

In the middle ages, books continued to be painstakingly copied by hand. Later, they entered the industrial age as they were printed with moveable type but still bound by hand. Still later, they were manufactured en masse and were affordable for the masses, no longer a rarity.

But always, until very recently, books could be held in the hand. Their pages could be turned, dog-eared for favored parts, scribbled on when the author’s thoughts inspired the reader’s.

Now, of course, books can be read on computers, or Kindles, or, as of this week, on iPads. The words are called up electronically. Often, they appear in bits and pieces, not in a single published work. While such words are immediately accessible, they lack context.

Some people still value the physical object, the book.

One of those people is 15-year-old Xena Pulliam of Knox. “I like to lie down when I read,” she says. “I like to take books with me. I like to hold them.”

She appeared in our newsroom this week, like a springtime zephyr — long, flowing hair framing a lightly freckled face lit by bright brown eyes. Xena traveled with an entourage — her mother; her 10-year-old twin brothers, Slade and Axton; and her 7-year-old brother, Ezeke. She brought with her a forcefully written letter to the editor. It needed no editing.

It was Xena’s first day of spring break from Tech Valley High, a school she loves, and she had a list of things to accomplish. One of them is to jumpstart an Official BookCrossing Zone at the Altamont Free Library.

Reading books, Xena wrote us, is “one of the best things in the world and it doesn’t seem like enough people in this day and age, especially young people, appreciate a good book. They are all wrapped up in their video games, TV shows, and texting, and they don’t sit down and enjoy a good book ever.”

We agree. And we were impressed with how well Xena expressed herself in writing. Her goal is to become a published author. She’s already written fiction and fantasy as well as poetry.

She attributes her love of the written word to her parents. Her father is a carpenter and her mother a graphic designer. They are both book lovers and had read to her “since day one,” said Xena. She now reads several books a week and currently has “about 10” going at once.

We had never heard of a BookCrossing Zone and were curious to find out more. We learned that Ron and Kaori Hornbaker developed a website in 2001 to track books. They knew how popular the site that tracks dollar bills, WheresGeorge.com, was and launched www.bookcrossing.com. Momentum grew and now over 740,000 people, including Xena, are part of a global community sharing books and, as the website puts it, moving closer to making the whole world a library. “Bookcrossing” is now listed as a word in the Oxford English Dictionary, defined as “the practice of leaving a book in a public place to be picked up and read by others, who then do likewise.”

“There are two ways of releasing books: wild releases, where you leave your book somewhere and hope that someone picks it up, or controlled releases, where you pass the book along to a friend or family member,” explains Xena.

She discovered the website in January while she was doing online research on how to publish a book. She found a reference to BookCrossing on a blog, and checked it out, so to speak. In the three months since she discovered the website, Xena has run several online match-ups through the site.

“There’s a spot on the website for Random Acts of BookCrossing Kindness and some people post a virtual shelf of books to choose from,” she said. “Others do exchanges or contests…I organized my fifth exchange today,” she said on Monday.

A recent exchange attracted 40 people from all over the world whom she paired up. Xena paired her mother with a reader in Finland and herself with a reader in Italy.

The Italian woman sent her Summer Pleasures by Nora Roberts, which arrived with a note as well as a wallet and a manicure set. The way the note was written made Xena realize that English, in which the book is written, isn’t the Italian woman’s first language. Xena had specified a “young adult fantasy or romance” and concluded, “She sent an adult romance, but it’s PG.” Xena is already half-way through the two-part book.

It’s not a book Xena would have picked for herself, but she likes it. “A magazine journalist is doing a story on a reclusive author,” she relates. “She got the interview by going on a camping trip with him…They end up getting married.”

“I PMed her and she PMed me back,” said Xena, referring to personal messages the two exchanged through the BookCrossing website.

When she has finished with the book, Xena can give it to someone or leave it somewhere. She has special labels she has received from other BookCrossing members, each with an identification number, that allow the book to be tracked as it travels from reader to reader.

“A lot of the labels say, ‘I’m not lost. I’m a traveling book.’ Or ‘Pick me up,’” said Xena. “I stuck one on a book today all in Spanish.”

Xena has also hunted books through the website. She desperately wanted to read Shadowland when it was first published. And, although the Upper Hudson Library System had a couple of copies, they were in high demand.

“It would be forever till I got it,” said Xena. She found two copies on BookCrossing and one of the people she contacted said, “I’ll pop it in the mail tomorrow.” Since it was in a small town near Vancouver in the midst of the Olympics, Shadowland took two weeks to arrive in Altamont, but was worth the wait. “It was really good,” said Xena, who has read each of the Harry Potter books three times.

Xena has released three books to the wild — at Applebee’s in Latham, at Colonie Center, and at Canajoharie High School. When she’s been at some more far-flung places, she’s said to herself, “Oh, I should have brought a book.”

Xena hasn’t heard back on any of the wild releases. “It could be five years from now,” she said.

This week, Xena also mailed out a book box filled with her favorites, another activity encouraged by BookCrossing. This box went to Sarah, who is just a few days younger than she, and lives in Florida. They met through the site and have gotten close.

Sarah will take out books to read and add others she has read before mailing the box to another reader.

“Since young adults don’t read as much, most of the members are older,” laments Xena. She also regrets that there are no active BookCrossing members in Altamont. “I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to find a book…It would be cool if there were a zone here.’” So she talked to Judith Wines, the director of the Altamont Free Library, who agreed to the plan.

As Xena explains in her letter, anyone can bring books to the zone in the library and take books from there as well. “It’s completely free and it takes little to no time to join and register a good book that you have and want to pass along,” says Xena. She even has a solution for those who don’t want to join but have books they’d like to unload: “Feel free to send them to me and I will gladly do it for you.”

“I would love to see the zone get successful,” Xena told us. “I’d love to see people reading and loving books.”

We remember how, in our youth, we liked looking at the names penned on the cards tucked in envelopes in the back of each library book before we signed our own name to check them out. We often recognized the names of previous readers. Sometimes they were still around and we could talk to them about the book we had shared. Other times they had moved away or died and we were left to ponder how that book had shaped them.

BookCrossing combines the best of two worlds. It preserves the history found in a physical object — a book — and cross-pollinates it with the global reach of the Internet so that readers who have never met can find each other and share in the joy of reading.

Tracking a book is a whole lot more interesting than tracking a dollar bill because readers can discover all variety of things about other cultures and about themselves from books.

We applaud Xena Pulliam for reaching out to her community to further a love of reading. We hope many of our readers will join her in the zone. She’s promised to keep us posted. We take her at her word.

Bravo, Xena! The encore is up to the rest of us.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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