Sat, May 03, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Book-swapping proves an eco-reader's dream

Just 24 books are produced for every tree cut. But swapping Web sites could keep ecologically aware readers happy

By Charlotte Northedge  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The cover is creased and the edges slightly curling, but otherwise The Memory Keeper’s Daughter is in surprisingly good condition for a book that has traveled more than 1,609km and been through seven pairs of hands.

“I don’t bother about creases on the cover or the spine,” says Wendy Evans, 48, the seventh and current owner of Kim Edwards’ novel, which has traveled from the length and breadth of the UK before landing on her doorstep in Sheffield in the north of England.

“I do object to food residue, but this one’s in pretty good [condition],” she said.

Evans has exchanged 135 books through ReadItSwapIt.co.uk since last August.

“It’s addictive,” she said. “I can try out authors I wouldn’t normally read and I don’t feel guilty if I give up halfway. I’m not paying for the book, and I’m not throwing it away after I’ve read it or leaving it to gather dust on a shelf.”

For eco-aware readers, the environmental benefits of swapping rather than buying are clear.

In 2003, Greenpeace launched its book campaign, producing evidence that the UK publishing industry was inadvertently fuelling the destruction of ancient forests in Finland and Canada. It found that one Canadian spruce produces just 24 books, which means that if you get through one book every two weeks your reading habits destroy almost one large tree every year. (In the same year, Greenpeace persuaded Raincoat Books to produce the Canadian edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on recycled paper, saving an estimated 39,000 trees.)

But despite the campaign, only 40 percent of the UK book industry has introduced paper with a high level of recycled content, largely choosing to use paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council instead.

Beyond using the country’s dwindling network of libraries, until recently the opportunities for exchanging paperbacks have been limited to friends, community schemes and book groups. But in the past two years, a spate of online book-swapping sites has emerged. Inspired by the goodwill schemes operated by hostels around the world, whereby travelers can leave behind books they have read and pick up something new, these sites generate little profit for their founders. The books are swapped directly between users, who pay the postage; the sites simply facilitate the meeting and identifying of potential exchanges.

On BookMooch.com, a site run from California, users enter the titles they want to give away and earn credit that enables them to borrow each time they swap a book.

“I was inspired by a community center I saw on holiday,” founder John Buckman said. “It had a bookshelf outside with a sign saying, ‘Leave a book, take a book’. I liked the idea of them circulating around the world.”

What sets BookMooch apart from sites such as WhatsOnMyBookshelf, PaperBackSwap and Bookins, is its international scale. It has 68,930 users in 91 countries. Since its launch in 2006, nearly 700,000 books have been swapped; The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, the most exchanged — or “mooched” — book, has been swapped 755 times.

Edwards’ tale is something of an online sleeper hit, beating bestsellers such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach to the top spot on both BookMooch and ReadItSwapIt.

Earlier this year, Philip Felstead, 57, from Dorset, southwest England, was the fifth person to read the well-thumbed copy that now sits on Evans’s bedside table.

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