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”Goe, little booke,” wrote the English poet Edmund Spenser when he sent his “Shepheard’s Calender” out into the world back in 1579 and inspired a flurry of contemporary authors to adopt the metaphor of books as children sent to seek their fortune. In a modern twist on an old idea, some enthusiastic and evidently underemployed people have started an Internet-based venture in which readers, not authors, send books out “into the wild” to try their luck.

Although it’s not an idea that will appeal to everyone, BookCrossing.com, which began in April 2001, has grown by leaps and bounds in the months since. It may never rival Xbox or the Segway as popular entertainment, but in its eccentric, ’60s-ish way it does remind us that innocence, whimsy and antimaterialism do survive in some pockets of our depraved, oversolemn and materialistic world.

How does it work? Inspired by Web sites such as Where’s George, which tracks U.S. currency by serial number, and PhotoTag.org, which leaves disposable cameras about then tracks them and displays the pictures taken on them, the BookCrossing founders say they asked themselves, “Okay, what’s something else that people would have fun releasing and then tracking?” They came up with the idea of books, on the grounds that books are something “almost everybody” loves. Fired by visions of the world as a giant library, they encourage members to label books with a BookCrossing sticker and leave them about in public places — on a park bench, in a cafe, on a plane or train or bus — for other people to find and read for free.

A “successful release” is one where the finder as well as the releaser reports the fate of a book back to the Web site. But most members, they say, release books just for the “joy of sharing.” From one angle, the numbers of books thus set free are not all that high: 19,426 in the United States and just 15 in Japan so far. But from another angle, they are quite surprising. For one thing, that’s just English-language books. Imagine extrapolating those numbers if the idea catches on for books in other languages.

And for another, who would have thought even that many people would be willing to go to so much trouble — not just to leave a book behind, but to label it, register it and follow its fate online? Not that this doesn’t have some scary implications. BookCrossers are obviously a very unusual group of people. To become one, you would have to be both a sentimentalist (“Make the world one big library!”) and a control freak (labeling, registering and tracking are hardly the activities of free spirits, after all).

And we’re sorry to have to say it, but BookCrossers can’t really be classified as book lovers. Real book lovers would never deliberately leave even a tattered paperback on a bus or a park bench, for a couple of good reasons. They wouldn’t have bought it in the first place if it hadn’t struck them as a good book, even a light one. It wouldn’t be tattered if they hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed it. And in all likelihood it would fit into some category in their highly organized and strictly alphabetized collection at home, meaning that to give it away would leave a painful gap.

For the true bibliophile, there is even a niche on the shelf for a John Grisham (an author who has two of BookCrossing’s 10 most-registered books), since a well-loved collection is a mansion with many rooms, all reflecting some aspect of the owner’s spirit. There is probably nothing a book lover would rather give away less than a book.

Yet the BookCrossing idea remains an interesting one, not least as yet another instance of the many creative ways in which books have proven capable of coexisting with the Internet. This was the medium that was supposed to sound their death knell. Instead, they have established all kinds of fruitful symbiotic relationships with it: Amazon.com and other online booksellers have made book-buying easier and cheaper than ever; e-books, which can be downloaded into a personal computer, command a large and growing audience; and now there is this odd little movement to sow books abroad the way Johnny Appleseed sowed seedlings, with the whole thing orchestrated via the Internet. Not all of this activity is commercial, but all of it confirms the suspicion that books will be alive and well for a long time to come. To the extent that BookCrossing is a part of that creative urge to survive, we applaud it.

Meanwhile, we suppose there’s no harm in keeping an eye out for the next “release” in Japan. According to the Web site, the last one was Piers Anthony’s “Letters to Jenny,” set free in Kyoto on Aug. 9. Who knows what jewel could be next?

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