“Bibliomancy” is the art of using books for predictions, prophetic rituals or standard divinations. Riddled throughout history and tracing back to the classical world, bibliomancy is typically practiced by letting a book fall open to a random page and analyzing the passage found there. And while it is most commonly understood in the context of religion, with passages selected from sacred texts, the practice itself is not divided along religious lines. A Christian in the Middle Ages might seek out answers in Virgil’s “Aeneid”; a Roman might turn to Homer’s “Odyssey.”
Apparently, even a shipwrecked sailor may rely on bibliomancy in his time of need. I’m sitting in my English class when I am reminded of this term, absently flipping through “Robinson Crusoe” and letting my thumb brush along the worn pages. It’s a little past noon. I have been awake for 30 minutes, and I’ve been out of bed for fewer.
The professor directs us to a passage in which Robinson opens the Bible, and lo and behold, he is immediately presented with scripture that seems written just for him. Eureka! Everything comes together in that glorious moment. I’d partake in it too if I had the right edition, but it seems my mother taught me too well. I grabbed my copy from the library for free, hence the page-flipping. I listen to the words being spoken aloud and glance down at my own text to see if I’m in the right spot: “June 23. Very bad again, cold and shivering, and then a violent Head-ach.” I keep flipping.
But Robinson’s epiphany has already come and gone, and the professor has continued on with her lecture. She talks of literature and the ways in which we interpret art. Symbols, letters, words, the signs we choose to see and the signs we choose to ignore — the burden of constant interpretation in a world in which coincidence isn’t enough. She talks of meaning. My thumb catches on page 114: Robinson is trying to make bread, but he has no yeast and no oven. Useless.
I jump in my seat as the people around me begin to leave, jostling down the aisles and knocking their water bottles against the seatbacks with a metallic “cling.” I take this as my cue to depart as well. I’ve already left the building when I realize I feel odd. I’m halfway to my next class when I realize that the odd feeling is disappointment. “Robinson Crusoe” has been tossed haphazardly into my book bag, the sharp corners digging into my thigh with every other step.
I don’t know when exactly it happened, but some time this year I became obsessed with finding meaning in my life. That’s not to be confused with finding Meaning in Life — I think we’re all a bit obsessed with that. Instead, I’ve fixated on the little questions, the minutiae of day-to-day living that’s been causing me disproportionate grief. Am I going to do well this semester? Am I taking on too much? I download the Co-Star app and check it every morning, and every morning I end up irritated by it. Should I experiment with my style? Should I ask someone out? I get a tarot reading from my friends. When did I start to feel different? When did things start to change?
When I get home that day, the day I spent restless and disappointed, I decide that I am tired of reading “Robinson Crusoe.” I decide it might be a good laugh to do a bit of my own bibliomancy with a book I actually enjoy — my favorite book. It’s only when I sit down next to the small stack of paperbacks I keep beside my bed, spreading them out like a feast, that I realize I no longer know which one is my favorite. The moment of inspiration passes; I suddenly feel silly. I don’t touch the books again for a few days.
I thought I was fine with change, but that was only because nothing had ever changed for me before. I am not so much a creature of comfort as I am a creature of peace and quiet: I’d take a shipwreck on an island over a bustling metropolis any day. But that, too, may be changing. I find myself more energetic lately, more likely to scream and laugh and take charge of a situation. I find myself annoying, even, with the amount of energy I flaunt around. And I find myself bored of skimming the same passages from the same books, too lazy to reread them in their entirety, looking for new meaning in old places before tucking them back into the small pile when there is none to be found.
The changes that I am going through are not bad. Like all standard changes, they are simply different. And sometimes, although it’s hard to say, there is no meaning behind them; they just happen. I don’t know why I’ve been so restless lately, just as I don’t know why I’ve been so happy. I’ve been waiting for the comedown to happen, trying to predict when the other cosmic shoe will drop, but maybe that’s not as inevitable as I thought. All I know is that if I want answers, I should probably stop asking the writings of Daniel Defoe and start asking myself.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].