From the Inverness Courier

Speaking volumes

A LIFE-LONG fascination with books has led one Highland woman to leave a trail of some 100 books in public places from Eden Court to international airports for the last two years.
As a self-confessed bookworm, 42-year-old Kiltarlity woman Sheila Wallace has been involved in a number of book groups over the years but her most recent pioneering initiative to interest others is slowly making its mark on Inverness.
Since last August, Mrs Wallace has been leaving books all over the city but, far from being the odd or suspicious behaviour it initially appears to be, her actions are in fact honourable.
Founded in April 2001, the bookcrossing initiative is an international scheme which relies on members leaving books in halls, cinemas and theatres.
Each book is marked with a bookcrosser’s label directing whoever picks it up to a web-site where they can log details on the book before continuing the chain effect by leaving it for somebody else to find.
Although still a relatively new idea, bookcrossers are already making an impact throughout the Highlands, with books being left in Beauly, Ardersier, Thurso and Benbecula as well as Inverness.
Despite starting as nothing more than a unique alternative to book groups Mrs Wallace is the first to admit it has taken over her life and there is no hiding the fact that she is quietly delighted when some of her books end up thousands of miles away
“Some of the books are often found by people on holiday and it is not unusual for them to end up on the other side of the world,” she revealed.
“One of the children’s books I left in Safeways in Inverness was picked up by young child on holiday from Brora who then ended up sending it to a friend in Australia. Being able to follow a book’s journey like that and know it is being widely read is really satisfying.”
Since becoming a fully fledged bookcrosser, everyday tasks have become opportunities to either catch up on some reading or add to her increasing trail of books she has released into the public domain.
“It has taken over my life,” she said. “I almost wish I had got into this earlier when I had more free time to read. Now I find myself trying to catch five or ten minutes between peeling the potatoes.
“In the past I have taken books with me on holiday to Canada and America, leaving them in airports or hotels. Now when I am packing for a holiday, the first thing I think of is what books to take with me — not to read but to leave. It has become something of an addiction,” she laughed.

While the actions of bookcrossers may be far from sinister, she admits the increasing security measures now in place at train stations and airports has left her feeling more conspicuous lately.
“Finding appropriate places to leave books has been a problem in the past,” she reflected. “The obvious places where lots of people congregate are train stations and airports, but given the security concerns surrounding left luggage, I feel slightly uncomfortable now about leaving books in certain places, especially stations,”she explained.
As well as running the risk of sparking a spate of security concerns, the hazard of being involved in such a scheme is that the reluctance of the British people to pick things up often means books find their way no further than the lost property box of a building.
“I once left a book at Glasgow airport and watched to see who picked it up,” she recalled. “A couple of people looked at it and put it down again, eventually a cleaner handed it to the barman. I can only hope he read it and it is not languishing in the airport’s lost property,” she laughed.
While a lot of the books are left at random locations, efforts are made to link certain titles or authors to the places where they are left. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song” was left by Mrs Wallace at Eden Court during a weekend showing of the play. She also left a children’s book of true shark stories in a swimming pool where an enterprising youngster searching the lockers for leftover 20 pences made the unlikely discovery.
Despite her obvious enthusiasm for the initiative, Mrs Wallace admits it is not shared by her husband and three sons.
“My husband can’t understand why I don’t use the library,” she said. “I have disciplined myself recently. I only have one book shelf at home full of books which I intend to leave — but I think my sons see it as mum’s strange hobby.
“It is the unexpected discovery of suddenly coming across a book when you least expect it or following the journey of one you have released that keeps it interesting for me.”
In between studying for an environmental science degree at Inverness College and reading six to eight books a month, Mrs Wallace is a keen hillwalker and mountaineer. However, thoughts of bookcrossing are never far away and plans are already under way to combine both hobbies later this year by leaving a book on top of a mountain.
While Mrs Wallace may still be battling to convince her family of the value of bookcrossing, she is already enjoying the benefits of contributing to a virtual bookshelf where book-swapping can verge on the ironic.
“I was looking for a copy of “McCarthy’s Bar” by Pete McCarthy to leave at Eden Court one weekend so I went onto the website and asked it anyone had a copy. Eventually a man in Germany ended up sending it to me!”

Overseas book swapping has become a branch of bookcrossing that Mrs Wallace and other members are using on a regular basis.
As well as leading the way in the growth of the initiative in Inverness, one of the highlights of being involved in the scheme came last month when Mrs Wallace got the opportunity to take part in Britain’s first Book Box.
“Eight books were put in a box and it was sent to the first person on the list who took one out and replaced it with one of their own. The box was then sent to me and I sent it on to Preston,” she explained. “Book boxes are growing increasingly popular in Canada but this was the first one to be done in Britain.”
One of the main factors holding back the development of a European bookswapping movement is the reluctance of the British to learn other languages.
“Britain has been a bit slower compared to countries like Italy in taking up the bookswapping.
“Europeans have the advantage of being fluent in several languages which considerably widens the options for book boxes and book-swapping,” she explained.
“One of the main barriers we come across over here is that British people can’t do swaps for Italian or German books unless an English version is available.”
Although resigned to the fact that her hobby may never find favour with her sons, Mrs Wallace has no plans to give up bookcrossing any time soon.
While she admits she has not yet had the life-changing impact that others have experienced from stumbling across the right book at the right time, her enthusiasm for the initiative looks set to spiral.
“I think the founders were probably trying to capture the childhood dream that someone will find their message in a bottle,” she said.
“Some people claim finding the books was like chicken soup to the soul with the right book entering their life at just the right time. I haven’t had this experience yet but you never know!”

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