As a regular rush-hour user of the London Underground, I'm quite sure I know what it is like to own a guest cottage in the ninth circle of Hell: blistering heat, crowded, and full of people who seemed lovely up in the daylight but turn out to be real bastards down in this pit of torment.
Yes, commuting can be a painful experience; but I’m an optimist at heart and eager to seize any opportunity to make life more bearable. The latest nifty idea to grab my attention and provide succour from this daily trial is book swapping.
Many veteran travellers stick on a podcast or grubby their fingers with a freesheet, but I’ve always found comfort in the lure of a good story. The burgeoning book swap movement could be the answer to many commuting miseries. Book swapping is eco-friendly and purse-pleasing because it allows anyone to trade-in their tattered, old paperback for a thrilling new read. If you think that this kind of literary utopia only exists in pretentious coffee shops and that bit of the British Library that you’re too embarrassed to go into, then prepare to reconsider...
A flag-ship book swap scheme has won the backing of Boris Johnson and is campaigning to create a London-wide book sharing scheme in London's Underground and train stations. The Books for London campaign is currently run on a volunteer basis and is only available at 7 London stations, but there are hopes that this will expand to more stations soon. Inevitably, there are a few downsides to used books that even well-organised schemes can’t remedy. I'm greedy with some of my books so would be very reluctant to give away my favourites, and my worry is that other commuters will be equally selfish. What if the book-swap stations are stuffed with whole shelves of 50 Shades of Grey and Will Self books that people gave up on at the 100th chapter-less page? Oh, the horror!
Still, used book have a unique scent, touch and personality, which make them very attractive to me. Second-hand books are like people, each with a rich and unique history. I remember working my way through a school copy of The Great Gatsby; a wonderful book with an involving plot. When I reached the dramatic, penultimate chapter I noticed that an earlier reader had vented their frustration with the misguided actions of one character and scrawled; “Noooooo!!” on the page, underlining it several times. This was a real treat to find, and when reading the book again with my own copy I always remember that frustration shared with a stranger.
Book swapping a beloved novel is an easy and cheap way to find books you might enjoy and can help someone else find a book they’ll love. So, if you’re lucky enough to live in Acton Central or Wimbledon you can get cracking straight away. And if you’re not one of these fortunate few, then add your voice to the campaign and let’s get book swapping all over the UK!
Image via nSeika's Flickr