Sep 202011

Cross-posted from The ReAuthoring Project

It’s not often that I find myself in the position of bigging up a major media initiative, particularly when it comes to literature. Even less likely that the major media in question should be the Guardian, whose concept of innovation in literature is typically limited to allowing a spoken word ‘tent’ at its heavily sponsored Hay Festival. But I quite like the recently-launched Guardian-Observer Book Swap…don’t know whose idea it was, but they’ve hit a lot of ReAuthoring buttons. Which of course makes us happy.

The Book Swap officially launched on 16 September, but I’m proud to say that I was inadvertently ahead of the curve. Early last week, I left some books out for charitable collection; coming home from a shop, I found my postman having a peek through the titles. He looked a bit sheepish when I arrived, but I said he was welcome to take what he liked, assuring him that I was merely donating what had been thoroughly read in the household. Checking later, I noted that Chris Cleave’s Little Bee and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore were missing from the charitable pile. Good taste, that postie.

That brief exchange is emblematic of what the Book Swap project is attempting, albeit on a much grander scale. In a nutshell, the G-O has distributed some 15,000 books across…well, it’s not clear where the books are being distributed (one presumes primarily greater London, as this is the G-O’s main territory). The project encourages people to join in and offer their own favourites, leaving them on buses, benches, in cafes, etc. As Laura Barton’s introductory article puts it, the Book Swap is “a wordy treasure hunt, a sort of literary message in a bottle, a chance to toast the extraordinary specialness of books.” Admirably, the Book Swap has promised to range far and wide in its idea of literature: manuals, textbooks, obscure novellas and suchlike are out there waiting, along with Dan Brown and Margaret Atwood.

The Book Swap makes some noise about being an antidote to the increasingly virtualisation of reading, but it actually undermines this point in a good way. Perhaps the most fun aspect of the Book Swap is its integrated use of Twitter and Flickr in an attempt to make the ‘treasure hunt’ aspect of the project more lively. As Barton’s article states, the project encourages participants to “snap it, map it, tweet it.” In this, the Book Swap becomes precisely that: a huge, and hugely distributed, literary flea market (sans trestle tables). And all of it, free.

The Book Swap runs through the end of October. Later today, I’ll be parting with a copy of Lolita and will duly ‘snap and tweet’ its location on the Book Swap site.


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