Our Reading Lives

Bibliomancy: Finding Direction in Random Lines of Books

Michelle Anne Schingler, a former librarian and Hebrew school teacher, is the managing editor at Foreword Reviews. Her days are books, books, books; she knows how lucky that makes her.  Twitter: @mschingler

Here’s a quirk that, though not unique to the South, gets amplified in the Bible Belt: the decision to trust randomly chosen lines from books, particularly the Bible, for fast guidance.

Bibliomancy involves shelving standard reading practices in favor of treating a text as predictive. You abandon linearity and seek wisdom in just pieces of the page that you feel guided to–usually a line, a verse at most. It’s an uncommon way to sort through internal turmoil. Or settle general queries, fortune cookie-style. Use in place of a horoscope to start your day.

I have one acquaintance in particular who speaks of her biblio-divination often. Creeping worry? Take it to the Bible. Qualms about an upcoming meeting? Same. Car trouble? There’s no concern too small for the oracular abilities of The Good Book. She’s always comforted by how much the verses she stumbles upon seem to speak to her current situations.

So she shares said verses mid-effusion, to let others know about the active power of the Bible–even if taken only verse by randomly-chosen verse–in her life. While I, whose approaches to the Bible, in particular, run more toward the exegetical side (context context context!), am not often convinced that Isaiah or Mark or Esther are speaking directly to her in the way that she supposes, the comfort she draws from her reading method interests me.

On reflection, I’ve done similar spot-reading with favorite books of my own. I know Whitman’s Leaves of Grass so well at this point that a divination-type reading suits me; I don’t always have time for whole chunks of it, but can still take a moment, breathe, let the book fall open on its own, allow my eyes to rest on a verse, and draw some sustenance from what I find. Its lines do, at times, seem alive in my life.

Some social media even encourage this kind of quick reading, if they don’t always recommend finding meaning in what you alight upon: Grab the book closest to you. Locate the 3rd line on the 42nd page. Share. The results are hodgepodge and, depending on the variety of participants, often really fun to read through. Lines from anthropology texts appear alongside bland bits of theory, strands of romance novels alongside suddenly un-thrilling snippets of high prose. You are led, whether by intention or not, to the occasional question: what’s that from? If you’re lucky: where can I get it? So maybe the method is an effective guide to somewhere new even when it doesn’t mean to be.

So here’s my offering to you: the 12th full sentence on the 104th page of the third book on the book cart nearest to me, for no reason other than to see. (Ironically: it happens to be a religion text.) The fact that Edwin’s brother John took the role of Brutus was an eerie harbinger of what awaited the brothers–and the nation–two years hence.

Not an epiphany on my end, though, if I’m not mistaken: I DID just enjoy a line of Lucado more than I would have expected. Despite myself, I am piqued.

Are there any books that you have, do, or might think to read this way yourself?