Experiment in Bibliomancy

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Are you familiar with the term “bibliomancy?” I was probably in my thirties when I first came across it. I was going through an M.R. James reading phase, and was devouring his various ghost stories, quite greedily too, if the truth must be known. In his famous story, “the Ash Tree,” the character Mr. Crome is seeking on guidance on how to deal with the supernatural goings-on at Castringham Hall, picks up a bible and attempts the “old and by many accounts superstitious practice of drawing the sorts.” By this, the character means randomly opening the book and pointing his finger at the text to gain answers to questions that have been posed. The results of this practice in “The Ash Tree” are spot-on (once we later finish with the whole story) but I suspect some “literary license” was invoked to make them so.

(Below: MR James – A Titan of the Ghost Story genre)

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Roughly defined, bibliomancy is “the use of books in divination,” and it seems that “sacred books” are preferred, though not required. I was reminded of this practice a few days ago, by a post by Nina at her Multo(Ghost) blog. She used a non-sacred text (as I did in the experiment I attempted on 11/1) and shared some of the results. I was surprised out how relevant the answers she got could be interpreted, and when I inquired if they were all the result of her “first cast” she elaborated that she had asked several other questions in addition to the three she wrote about and only shared the most reasonable. I decided to be harsher in my approach, giving only three chances. I chose for a text, my electronic copy of Jack London’s complete works. Checking in at just over 8,000 pages, it allowed me to pick random pages by dragging the progress bar back and forth a bit and then alighting wherever it landed. Here are my results:

Question 1: Should I try again to do this NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) thing, which I have failed at twice already?

“Every feature of the man told the same story, from the clear blue eyes to the full head of hair, light brown, touched with grey, and smooth parted and drawn straight across above the domed forehead.” (From the story “By The Turtles of Tasman”)

Analysis: Not that good of a “hit” unless I focus only onthe first few words “every feature of the man told the same story.” I could interpret this as either meaning 1) if I try again, it’ll be just the same old story of failure to stick with it or 2) My imagination is not robust enough to produce a high volume of creative output – all my stories are the same. Interesting…

Question 2: what should I do about my long standing Colts season tickets agreement?

“He was splendidly muscled and hard as steel, and there were innumerable stories in circulation among the fisher-folk regarding his prodigious strength. He was as bold and dominant of spirit as he was strong of body, and because of this he was widely known as ‘The King of the Greeks.'” (From the story “The King of the Greeks“)

Analysis: (background) I have shared 4-6 Colts tickets with a friend for many years. They are in her name so it has always been a handshake agreement. Frankly, I’m getting burned out and also more sensitive to the outrageous cost and financial impact. I’m thinking about making this my last year. Again not a very specific hit, but I found it interesting that the passage could be said to describe a promising athlete (Andrew Luck?) but he is described in the past tense (Peyton Manning?). Unfortunately, I don’t think it provides much in the way of advice on what to do – unless it is meant to remind me that the new “Luck Era” we are entering into is not something to be missed? Hmm…

Question 3: Any advice for the focus of my blog in 2014?

“Gradual as was my development as a heavy drinker among the oyster pirates, the real heavy drinking came suddenly, and was the result, not of desire for alcohol, but of intellectual conviction” (from the novel “John Barleycorn”)

Analysis: Now this one was interesting. I have gotten more and more involved in the book blogging community (clearly, these are the “oyster pirates?”) the past few years, and my progress has been quite gradual. I have often had the sense that I am in effect building toward something of a critical mass where the blogging will lead to something else. This may come suddenly (as the heavy drinking does in the text), I don’t know. It’s hard to spend too much time on blogging, but it IS true that it is somewhat hard to define “intellectual conviction” that drives me to continue.

So, all in all, a fun experiment that perhaps I shall repeat some day (maybe I’ll make it a November 1st tradition?). I think the benefit of the practice lies in how it nudges you to think a little abstractly about your questions in order to bring them into range of the text randomly chosen. The forging – or attempt at forging – those links was a pleasant mental exercise.

What about you? Have you ever heard of – or attempted – bibliomancy? Why don’t you give it a try and share your results on your blog. Leave a link in the comments if you do…

<Below: an ancient bibliomancer? (From an interesting blog post at New World Witchery  )>

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13 Comments

  1. Richard Boyle said,

    November 4, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Hi Jay, I think of this exercise in much the same way I think of the “predictions” of Nostradamus…i.e. a creative person can always find some connection after the fact. Even Jean Dixon hits on a few of her 500 annual predictions but the failures are never advertised. If you are stretching to find a connection, you can generally find one regardless of how tenuous it may seem to others. Thanks for posting. See you later this month.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 4, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Richard. You make an excellent observation, and it is likely that this phenomenon is what leads so many credulous people into believing something paranormal is taking place. (& I hope my post did not imply any endorsement of the practice as being efficacious in reality – I’m a totally rational man!) 🙂

      -Jay

      Like

  2. Alex said,

    November 5, 2013 at 9:44 am

    Jay, this is PRECIOUS! You should make it a regular feature. Maybe we can send you some important meaning-of-life-and-the-universe questions and you randomly choose a book + sentence and interpret it for us. Or maybe you can make prediction about current topics “Who will win the elections”, “Who will be the next Kardashian to become pregnant?”

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 5, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      Ha ha! Thanks, Alex. Maybe I could somehow have a “let fate decide” (via bibliomancy, of course) which book from my TBR list to read next? We’ll see. As for fielding readers’ questions, I’m afraid the bibliomancer code of ethics prohibits my using this power to aid others’ in whose hands the information might me misused… 🙂

      Like

      • Alex said,

        November 5, 2013 at 4:37 pm

        You are right, Jay. After all, “With great power comes great responsibility!”

        Like

  3. Brian Joseph said,

    November 5, 2013 at 9:51 am

    This post really put a smile on my face.I think that your point about this leading to creative and abstract thinking is a good one.

    I have never tried Bibliomancy but I think that I will give it a try soon!

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 5, 2013 at 1:18 pm

      Glad to hear, Brian. 🙂 I think if I attempt it again I may use my Bartlett’s Quotations (of his Shakespeare quotations) as my source as suggested by Paula below.

      Like

  4. Paula Cappa said,

    November 5, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Hi Jay. Yes, I often do this with books and it’s so much fun. I sometimes use a Dictionary of Quotations, which can stimulate a very specific interpretation. Or a book of poetry is good too for symbolism. And sometimes when writing and I’m searching for a word, I open Webster’s Dictionary at random and it either leads me to what I need or gives me the opposite. Actually Tarot cards are the best, especially for writing.

    Your comment about NaNoWriMo is interesting. I don’t participate but I’m sure it’s useful for some writers who need a kick to get going. But I don’t see that kind of race as creatively productive for the art of writing. I write all the time so November is no different than any other month.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm

      Hi Paula,
      It WAS kinda fun. 🙂 A couple times, upon first glance, I thought “there’s absolutely nothing I can use here” but then something would unfold and peek out a bit.

      Regarding using the dictionary, I’m one of those people who used to mark the words (with the date, too) I looked up in the dictionary. Whenever I looked up a new word, I’d always scan the two open pages for others I’d looked up before and see if I remembered their meanings. Good for random review!

      Regarding NaNo, I’m kind of with you. I’m always reminded of what one of Kerouac’s contemporaries told him about his method: “That’s not writing, that’s TYPING. 🙂 Was that Capote, maybe? I’ll have to look it up. That said, Indy has a very active NaNo group on Facebook, which I mostly lurk, but sometimes meet up with for a “write in” or two. it doesnt help my morale that im usually twenty years older than most of the others… I looked back at my last year’s unfinished effort yesterday and thought, “You know, this isn’t that bad…” I thought about being a NaNo “rebel” and making my goal be to just “write 50 blog posts” instead. That might be something I could do… Hmm…

      -Jay

      Like

  5. November 17, 2013 at 9:32 am

    Hi Jay, I believe you have reached Level 2 of the Guild of Divinatory Bibliomancers. With conviction and practise, I believe you will easily achieve mastery of such a potentially powerful supernatural power, perhaps as effective as that achieved by the English poet Robert Browning who used this method to ask about the fate of his enchantment to Elizabeth Barret. He was at first disappointed to choose the book “Cerutti’s Italian Grammar”, but on randomly opening it his eyes fell on the following sentence: ‘if we love in the other world as we do in this, I shall love thee to eternity’.

    Regards, FREAKY FOLK TALES

    ps I really enjoyed your article!

    pps If you like M.R.James tales then you may enjoy my blog which is devoted to warnings to the curious!

    http://freakyfolktales.wordpress.com/

    https://www.facebook.com/morefreakyfolktales

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 18, 2013 at 8:09 am

      Haha! I am honored by your evaluation of my humble bibliomantic skills. I shall try to keep them sharp. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing the Browning tidbit, too.

      -Jay

      Like

  6. LittleBat said,

    November 1, 2015 at 2:30 am

    I loved your description of the textual guidance, and the interpretations of it.

    This practice is well known among Christians. Many Protestants find it to be very useful, when facing a decision or dilemma, to open the King James Version of the Bible, and look at a verse. There are many examples of people finding an apt verse (of course, no one bothers to record all the times it was not a success.) There would be some Catholics who try this, but I am more aware of the custom among Protestants.

    Iranians have a similar practice – with the Divan of Hafiz – a poetry book, rather than scripture. But Persian poetry is taken so seriously, that it is like scripture. It is said that opening Hafiz’s poems at random will give the reader guidance.

    I tried that myself, just now, and asked what is the way forward in my career. The English translation of the divan came up with the verses: “You walked trailing your garment which was gold embroidered.”

    Hmmm … maybe it works better in Persian.

    Like

    • Jay said,

      November 1, 2015 at 11:36 am

      Thanks for the interesting comments! I think you’re so right about the phenomenon of the “misses” never getting recorded – in this and other forms of divination.I think the Divan of Hafiz is maybe simply restating the old adage about “Dress not for the job you have but rather for the job you want.” 🙂

      Like


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