In New York a week or two ago, I chanced across a book “in the wild.” The hard-bound book had a faded red cover and had been carefully placed on a low wrought-iron fence on St. Marks Place. It was not a book I wanted (“State and Society: A Reader in Comparative Political Sociology”), so I just gave it a friendly pat and walked on. Someone will take it — hopefully before it rains.
I wrote about books in the wild a month or so ago, and through your many replies came to realize that this is not a new concept at all. Miriam Segall of Minneapolis wrote to point me to a website devoted to this: bookcrossing.com, which provides coded stickers and an online directory so you can track where books end up.
Writer Joni Tevis recently left three books at Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. “It was a little self-serving, since I wrote one of ’em,” she wrote. “But I think they are all three great books, and I carried them in my pack 14 miles to the bottom.”
(All three were published by Minneapolis’ Milkweed Editions: “Beautiful Zero,” by Jennifer Willoughby; “Dangerous Goods,” by Sean Hill; and Tevis’ “The World Is on Fire.”)
Laura Mahal remembered finding “Zen in the Martial Arts” in a fire pit years ago. “The corners were singed, and the smell never went away,” she wrote. “But contained within its pages were lessons on life I was sure had been left specifically for me.”
Dick VanWagner of Eden Prairie discovered the short stories of the great Alice Munro by chance. “I was having one of my wheelchairs repaired at Allina and found myself without a book to read … just sales brochures for CPAPs and home oxygen tanks on the coffee table in front of me,” he wrote. “I lifted one of the brochures and there lay ‘Open Secrets’ by Alice Munro. I picked it up, read the first story, ‘Carried Away,’ and I was myself carried away by her prose.”
When he had finished reading it, he returned to the repair shop and “laid it on the coffee table where I had found it.”
Years ago, in Rome, Constance Birmingham accidentally left her Rick Steves guide to Rome on a park bench when she stepped away to take a photograph.
“When we developed our film, there it was, front and center in the snapshot,” she wrote. “Inside it I had taped various e-mails with recommendations from friends for restaurants and other suggestions for our stay. I didn’t mourn the loss, but regretted not having the personal notes.
“A few weeks after we arrived home in Iowa, we received a package with a Modena, Italy, postmark.” A woman had found the book and had been tempted to keep it until she saw the notes taped inside. “So she sent it off to the address on the inside cover. As a small gesture of gratitude, I mailed her a copy of an up-to-date Rick Steves guide to Rome.”
And Joan Siegel of Minneapolis had this story:
“I was once caught in the distressing circumstance of accompanying a bipolar friend who was in the throes of a manic episode on a 10-mile trek along railroad tracks leading out of St. Paul,” she said. “One bright spot that day was when he came upon a thick, beat-up paperback at a deserted hobo camp. Waving the tattered book in the air, he shouted, ‘You won’t believe the kind of bums that have been coming through here. It’s “The Magic Mountain”!’
“I had disliked Thomas Mann’s book when I read it in my callow youth and never finished it, but I loved it that day. It allowed me to have a most necessary long rest lying in the dappled shade of a birch tree on a warm autumn day.”
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks