Women to Love

Meet the book ninjas on trains

A book club on trains has inspired a novel about words, ideas and love. Genevieve Gannon travels with the book ninjas.

By Genevieve Gannon

Nobody knows the unifying power of books better than two best friends from Melbourne who built a friendship, then a community and finally a writing career on the love of the written word.

After penning a debut novel together, founders of Books on the Rail, Ali Berg and Michelle Kalus, are so close they joke they've almost melded into one person. Although their friendship didn't start out that way.

"It wasn't the perfect meeting," Michelle says of the first time the two crossed paths, as children on a family holiday in Marysville in country Victoria.

"Ali only had eyes for my older sister who was much cooler."

However, after that inauspicious start, Michelle moved to Ali's primary school, where the two discovered a shared passion for reading and became close.

"We were the kids who went to the elective writing club in Year 4 and all the book clubs in the library. We were the book nerds," Michelle admits.

"Our lives have been very much intertwined and we've been lucky. We've always shared a love of books and we have a very special friendship."

"We've known each other our whole lives really, and books have been a big part of that," Ali agrees.

As adults, the kindred spirits spread their love of books far and wide with their Books on the Rail project. Their story of love and literature started two years ago with a well-thumbed copy of The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons.

Ali and Michelle stuck a note to the front of the paperback – "Take this book, read it, then return it for someone else to enjoy" – then placed it on a train seat and sent it out into the world to be found by someone they hoped would derive as much pleasure from it as they had. With that simple act, Books on the Rail was born.

The premise is simple: Ali and Michelle (and now a loyal network of "book ninjas") circulate books on public transport to encourage people to read more, to try different genres and, as Ali puts it, "to bring the paperback back".

The Books on the Rail concept came about because Ali and Michelle were concerned the quiet daily journey to and from the office, which had once been the domain of newspapers and books, was losing ground to Twitter, Candy Crush and Angry Birds.

"It used to be such a special time that we both cherished," Ali says. "We'd noticed, more and more, that people were looking at their phones or iPads or even working on their laptops and not having that special camaraderie with one another when you notice someone's reading a book that you've just read. We really cherished that reading time. We really were passionate about bringing the paperback back."

So they began to stash novels and non-fiction on the Frankston line train in Melbourne, along various bus routes and anywhere else a lonely commuter might be in need of something to read.

"We try to keep it as diverse as possible because the romance of it and the randomness of it is that you don't know who is going to stumble across the book," Ali says.

The result was so much more than the proliferation of literature – furious literary discussions sprung up, along with new friendships, both online and in the real world.

"Someone tweeted that they had dropped a book and then saw that someone was sitting in front of them reading that book three days later," Ali says. "People have been meeting on Twitter and on Instagram and we have quite a big community now."

Along with their book ninja work, Ali and Michelle hosted book club events on public transport.

"People have formed quite a few friendships through those," Michelle says. "It's a special little community. Interacting with authors and readers and lovers of books is very special. The generosity of the book ninjas continues to amaze us and is incredibly humbling."

After two years of playing literary fairy godmothers, Ali and Michelle's lives have changed a lot. Authors and publishers now regularly reach out and send them books. The industry is thrilled to have two patrons of the written word who are so devoted to spreading stories across the city.

One meeting with Simon & Schuster's Director of Publicity, Anna O'Grady, proved particularly auspicious. Anna asked if they had ever considered turning some of their ninja stories into a book.

A loyal network of "book ninjas" now circulate books on public transport to encourage people to read more!
A loyal network of "book ninjas" now circulate books on public transport to encourage people to read more!

The writing process was intense and intensely collaborative. If Ali and Michelle thought they were close before, it was nothing compared to how they felt when they finally handed over their manuscript.

"It feels as though we're more like one person at the moment," Michelle says.

The result of their work is a very Melbourne literary romantic comedy called The Book Ninja, about a young bookseller who leaves a trail of literary breadcrumbs on Melbourne's public transport in a bid to find love.

"We used to joke about how great it would be if somebody found one of our books and through that, happened to meet somebody and develop a romance. That was our goal," Michelle says.

The Book Ninja is now available in bookshops and copies are travelling about on trains. Meanwhile, Ali and Michelle are co-writing their second novel. So the love of words will fuel their friendship for some time to come.

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