I had an analogue childhood: records, cassette tapes, letters in the mailbox, and getting up from the couch periodically to change the channel on the television. The Encyclopedia Britannica, in its two-shelf bookcase, took up a corner of the living room. It was our equivalent of Google. I’m pretty sure the Encyclopedia Britannia is entirely electronic these days, but not all these things have disappeared. Records (and even cassette tapes) are being produced for new music and we occasionally get a card in the mail.
Certainly print books haven’t disappeared yet, though e-readers are becoming more and more popular. There’s something irreplaceable about the heft of a book, the texture of the paper, and the quality of light against the page. The history of a particular copy is also something that gets lost when we turn to electronic versions. The experience of reading a book is enhanced by marginalia, inscriptions, forgotten bits of paper, even creases and stains. Perhaps not always stains.
It’s also hard to share books, unless you’re passing the e-reader to your partner. It limits the potential of a single copy of a book. One of the things I love about travelling is how books end up taking their own journeys. When I’m away, I like to bring copies of things that I want to read, but don’t want to keep. Once finished, they’re exchanged for another from the bookshelves wherever we’re staying. (Not in private homes – in hostels, hotels, or bed and breakfasts, where this sort of thing is encouraged. Honestly.)
I remember being on one long journey, thinking about the trajectory a book I’d just finished and really enjoyed might take. Considering the destinations of the other people staying at the hostel, I thought it might make it to Europe or South America and I wished I could somehow track its progress. A few years later, I heard about BookCrossing, which does exactly that.
BookCrossing is the sort of thing that I love about this new(ish) electronic world, because it is also rooted in tactile experience. The words real and virtual have had their meanings blurred, but in these cases they merge. Projects like this (and similar ones like Postcrossing or many iterations of mail art) are enacted in virtual space as they travel in real time. Eventually the trail stops and the book is never heard from again, though it might turn up unexpectedly, years later.
It’s not just the progress of the books that interests me, it’s also the generosity of spirit inherent in sharing with strangers. Like the sharing economy formed at Burning Man, looking out for strangers is an important part of creating community. Free boxes, extra umbrellas purposely left in cafés, community bookshelves – all these make a neighbourhood more liveable. It doesn’t replace socially just policies, but it helps enhance an atmosphere of neighbourliness.
The electronic component of this process isn’t necessary, though it’s fascinating. The physical location is what’s important. I was thrilled to discover this Neighbourhood Book Exchange a few blocks from where I live. There are similar shelves in coffeeshops around town, but this structure is freestanding and free to visit, 24 hours a day. Another reason to love the Neighbourhood Small Grants project.
It’s exciting to see this sort of creativity and well, friendliness, at work. It’s something that makes me happy to live here. I’d love to hear about the things that make you happy to live in your neighbourhood. I’d also love to hear about instances of virtual community that excite you, or that you’ve followed into the real world.
My next post will be my 100th and I’ll be doing a little something to celebrate. Come back on Thursday to see what’s happening.