But such is the globalised nature of a club that started in the United States a few years ago and has spread across the Atlantic and far beyond.

The founders of BookCrossing.com compare their online book club to a virus, one that has reached far-flung places carried by members who heed the philosophy: if you love a book, set it free.

One selling point is that it costs nothing to join.

Members include literature buffs determined to share their passion or thin out their shelves and travellers who simply love a good book - although here the books do most of the travelling.

The concept is based on what the club calls its 3Rs: Read, Register and Release.

Tracking number

Participants label a book's inside cover with a tracking number and the website's address www.bookcrossing.com, then stash it somewhere and post instructions online explaining where.

The club's concept is based on the
'3Rs': Read, Register and Release

Once a book's pickup is logged online, an email is automatically sent to whoever dropped it off.

Part of the thrill is seeing how far afield a book can land, said Jouannest, 45, a Parisian sound technician who left a French mystery novel on the Pont de l'Archeveche, a stone bridge behind Notre Dame, one spring day in 2004.

"I got word of it two months later. Someone found it in Ulan Bator - in Mongolia - and he took it with him to Buryatia," said a wide-eyed Jouannest, noting that he was familiar with the Russian republic of Buryatia from "Michael Strogoff", Jules Verne's 1876 tale of adventures in the Russian Empire.
 
No late fees

Word keeps spreading and membership rising as people leave books in cafes, parks or anyplace else so strangers can find them and partake in a novel attempt to turn the world into one big library - with no late fees.

Part of the thrill is seeing how
far afield a book can land

Sometimes the system works, sometimes it does not.

About 25% of books are found, according to Ron Hornbaker, an American software developer who founded the site in 2001.

The club now boasts 400,000 members in 120 countries.

"I knew it was the type of thing that could catch on and grow sort of in a viral nature," Hornbaker, 39, said by telephone from his office in Kansas City, Missouri.

"But I had no idea it would grow as fast as it did and as broadly geographically as it has."

'Wild books'

Overseas members now account for the majority.

The number of American BookCrossers has dipped to 46%, with those in Britain, Canada, Germany, Spain, Italy, France and elsewhere accounting for the rest.

"I like the gesture of sending a book. And you know someone somewhere will send you one back"

Elisabeth Lavarde
Parisian

Paris members hold gatherings once a month in the basement of a Right Bank cafe, where people sit around a table scattered with books up for grabs and glasses of beer.

They speak a language of their own: books are freed or released, at which point they are "wild books". Once logged online, a book has been "caught".
 
The act of handing off a book or mailing it to someone in another city or country is a "controlled release", which many do willingly and ask for nothing in return. Members can chat online about books they are searching for.

Sharing a good book is part of the draw for 28-year-old Parisian Elisabeth Lavarde, one of about 7000 French members.

"I like the gesture of sending a book. And you know someone somewhere will send you one back," said Lavarde, who has mailed books to members in Portugal and Switzerland.

"It really gives me pleasure to know that someone will get to read a book I loved."
 
Unique sharing

BookCrossing got some highbrow publicity last month when it became the focus of a mini mystery in French literary circles.

A book critic claimed to have found an advance copy of the hugely anticipated new novel by best selling writer Michel Houellebecq on a park bench.

In his review, Angelo Rinaldi, literary editor of Le Figaro newspaper, attributed his find to "le bookcrossing".

But in a telephone interview he conceded the story was a humorous way to disguise a leak of the book, La possibilite d'une ile (Island), which he panned.

"But I think it's a wonderful idea to share books," said Rinaldi, a member of the prestigious Academie Francaise, the watchdog of the French language.

"When I take a train, I often leave a book behind. But I've been doing that for ages. I didn't know I was a pioneer."