When Books Read You, a Defense of Bibliomancy


by Ed Simon

Now, here’s something you might do if you see fit. Bring me the works of Virgil, and, opening them with your fingernail three times running, we’ll explore, by the verses whose numbers we agree on, the future lot of your marriage. For, as by Homeric lots a man has often come upon his destiny.
—Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532)

It’s the fault of those physicists and that synchronicity theory, every particle being connected with every other; you can’t fart without changing the balance in the universe. It makes living a funny joke with nobody around to laugh. I open a book and get a report on future events that even God would like to file and forget. And who am I? The wrong person; I can tell you that.
—Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Towards the end of 1642, or possibly the beginning of 1643, but either way in the midst of a miserable winter of civil war, King Charles I found himself an often uncomfortable refugee in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. At that archetypal university, the king and his confidant Lucis Carrey, the Second Viscount Falkland, held a monotonous vigil. Unlike Cambridge, which lent its name to that other college town named in its honor by schismatic coreligionists across the ocean, and which would come to be known for its steadfast Puritanism and positivism, Oxford was all dreaming spires and medieval dragon chasing, a perfect shelter for a king making his last stand against Roundheads that were closing in. A map of England was brushed with Parliamentarian red, with Oxford a dab of royalist purple, and there King Charles consulted his leather bound volumes, reading by candle-light in cold rooms, hoping to find some perspective on his predicament. But the King did not consult Herodotus, or Thucydides, or Cicero, but rather, Virgil. And while the founding of the Roman Republic may seem apt enough to read in a situation such as this, Charles and Falkland did not confer with Virgil’s ghost as political strategists, but rather as eager and credulous customers having their Tarot read. For Charles, the wisdom of Virgil was not literary, but rather magical.

Charles was many things, not least of which a flip man, every bit as superficial as the dog breed which bears his name. And, as a stupid ruler, perhaps the stupidest thing he believed in was the literal divine right of kings. Despite his flippancy he was, however, a lover of books, and for that he deserves some modicum of our esteem; even if Milton was disgusted by Charles’ ignoring scripture as part of his parting speech upon the scaffold, opting rather to choose Pamela’s prayer from the Philip Sidney romance The Countess of Pembroke’s Old Arcadia. Even if he was an often juvenile and impetuous man, dissolving Parliament over perceived slights, or failing to account for the deep dissatisfaction among the growing middle class and the religious non-conformists of both London and wider England, he was still in some ways a brave man. Loyally standing by deeply unpopular figures like his Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, Charles was the man who, while quoting a bit of pop culture upon the executioner’s stage, was also one who requested an extra heavy wool shirt, lest his shivering in the cold English morning be interpreted by his enemies as trepidation.

But that was still in the future, and here, in this library towards the end of 1642 (or again, possibly at the beginning of 1643) the king, whom we have already established was prone to literary flights and the palliative of diversionary trifles, asked Falkland if he knew of any games adequate to passing the time here in the gloomy, dark, cold Bodleian. A one Dr. Welwood, in his account of the event, reports that Falkland “show’d among other Books, a Virgil nobly printed and exquisitely bound. The Lord Falkland, to divert the King, would have his Majesty make a trial of his fortunes.” Both would use the Roman epic as an oracle, they would present their questions to Virgil, and let the book function as a divination tool that would answer their inquiries, a trusted means of prophesizing that according to Welwood “everybody knows was an usual kind of augury some ages past.” With the type of ardor which only a bibliomaniac can muster, Charles turned to a book during what he assumed was the height of his political, military, and personal misfortunes; and with an affinity for superstition matched only by his belief that his very divine touch could cure sickness, Charles asked Virgil what his fortune would be. Letting the cracked leather spine hit the dark wooden surface of some Oxford desk, and with his eyes closed, the King pointed to some random line of Latin on some random page of Virgil. He did not like the fortune which had been caste. So he asked Lord Falkland to try casting his own lot, hoping for a better result. Falkland opened the volume at book 11, lines 150-157, which recounted the death of Evander’s son Pallas. The viscount would be dead by September of the following year (or, of course, September of that year if it was 1643), felled by a Roundhead’s bullet at the Battle of Newbury.

Fortuna’s wheel seems to have crushed Charles with an extra heaviness. John Aubrey records that a year before the King’s decapitation, Charles’ son then living in exile in Paris, asked the metaphysical poet Abraham Cowley to divert his own sorrows, writing that his friend offered “if his Highnesse pleased they would use ‘Siortes Virgilianae,’” as the poet, of course, “alwaies had a Virgil in his pocket.” This time, instead of letting the book fall open, Cowley rather took a pin and pushed it into the soft pages of the Aeneid, the prick arriving at the proper prediction for the royal estate. Both father and son, as it turned out, arrived at the exact same line regarding the Stuart family fortunes. What of Charles’ lot, and that of the prince, which so distressed both of them? Book 4 of the Aeneid, line 615, which is Dido’s prayer against her former lover, reading: “Nor let him then enjoy supreme command; / But fall, untimely, by some hostile hand.” In 1649, Charles would stand as upon the scaffold at Westminster, wearing his extra heavy shirt and quoting his Sidney, awaiting the regicide’s blade on his neck. Virgil may guide everyone to the truth, but that doesn’t mean that the truth will always set one free.

What Charles and the prince were so inadequately diverting their troubled minds with was a variety of divination known as bibliomancy, or the telling of the future with the aid of literature. Dr. Welwood was correct that the practice had an august history, across both east and west. One of many means of dubious divination, from the relatively well known such as tasseography (reading tea leaves) to the more obscure and thankfully extinct, like haruspicy (interpreting the organs, often livers, of sacrificed animals – popular in ancient Rome). All methodologies share a conception of meaning which is fundamentally different from the current dominant definition. While there is no shortage of people for whom astrologers, tarot, and palm readers offer some succor, it should be uncontroversial to note that the mainstream accepted definition of “meaning” depart from the magical in favor of the observable, the empirical, and the measurable. Science, it should be said, is not just a different form of magic where the terminology has been altered, palm reading replaced with MRI machines and tea leaves with spectroscopy. No, the very model of what constitutes meaning is fundamentally different as well, because for Charles I and the prince, Falkland and Abraham Cowley, they understood meaning very differently from our current accepted norms. For them, the very world was pregnant with an enchanted, glowing significance. Weather indicated not just what storms might await in the future, but what the course of one’s life may be; anomalies and strange phenomenon were to be read as harbingers of future events, as one might identify foreshadowing in a novel written with planning and intention. Nothing was divorced from a wider, if nebulous, meaning.

What the Stuart king was distracting himself with was a form of rhapsodomancy, which is the use of poetry to ascertain the future, and even more specifically the previously mentioned Sortes Virgilianae, an example of what Virgil himself might have called “this dark technology of magic.” Other popular varieties of rhapsodamancy included the Sortes Homericae, which utilized the two epic poems of Homer, and the Sortes Sanctorum which, contrary to a prohibition against magic in Deuteronomy, used the Bible for fortune-telling. As bibliomancy, and rhapsodamancy, generally connotes the use of literature for divination, the methodology of said reading could be accomplished in different ways. One could write an assortment of poetic lines on scraps of parchment or wood and draw them as lots, as was common with the use of those weird sisters and their Sibylline prophecies in ancient Rome. Or, one could use some sort of “randomness generator,” such as a die, coins, or yarrow sticks as are used with the ancient Taoist I Ching.

Readers of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction classic The Man in the High Castle (or viewers of its Amazon television adaptation) will be familiar with how the character Tagomi consults the almost 3,000 year old text for advice. Dick himself used the I Ching to generate the narrative of the novel, harnessing randomness in his writing, a method referred to as “aleatory composition.” This use of coins, and sticks, and dice can be contrasted to those methods in which the book is allowed to speak for itself (as it were), where a volume simply falls open so as to answer the questions posed to it, as with Charles at Oxford. This method relies on an innovation in information technology so ubiquitous that its radicalism may not be apparent: the codex. Simply the technical term for what we call a “book,” the codex was first used as a means of Roman record keeping, and arguably only began to supplant the scroll as the main method of literary transmission with the writing of the gospels, and then shortly thereafter with the roughly simultaneous, if divergent, Jewish and Christian canonization of certain texts as officially scriptural. A codex, by its very architecture (circumscribed by cover and back), enshrines certain presuppositions about writing: it makes a text discrete and separate, it turns the book into an individual. And an individual of course can have a question posed to it, with an expected answer. Yet the book’s prehistory of being a scroll endures in the malleability and interconnectedness which bibliomancy presumes, where literature endures as a type of electromagnetic force field which the auger can master. Perhaps modern technology will generate further innovations in the field of bibliomancy studies (as with the Twitter handle @BiblioOracle).

But regardless of the procedure, what makes bibliomancy fascinating is that unlike other forms of divination, it trades in something which already has an interpretable meaning – words. Perhaps a butcher can figure out the narrative that a sheep’s liver conveys, but that The Aeneid, as indeed all texts, has a meaning requires no suspension of disbelief, even if the meanings which are being derived seem far from authorial intention. What I find so interesting about bibliomancy is that it takes the written word, which again we all assent to as composing the very atoms of meaning, and it interprets those lines and sentences slant. Furthermore, it wrenches the very interpretive center of a given text away from the authority of the author who created it toward the service of the reader who consults the text as pilgrim at Delphi. Bibliomancy is thus a radical form of reading, one in which the reader themselves becomes a figure in the text’s narrative, for in presuming that The Aeneid (or Horace, or the Bible, or the I Ching) can predict our individual future, even obliquely, is to assume that we’re somehow encoded as characters in the text itself, like Moses reading of his own death in the Torah. A type of fantastic metafiction which breaks the cosmic fourth wall, finding our own fortunes hidden between the very letters in poems written millennia before we were born. Bibliomancy, in short, is one of the few opportunities in which the book is allowed to read you.

One could argue that such an approach cheapens literature, but I’d claim that far from a reduction such an approach rather widens interpretive possibilities, by making us partner in the creation of meaning. Note that in discussing an “approach” to bibliomancy, one need not embrace a literal belief that The Aeneid (or anything else) was actually predicting Charles’ moment upon the scaffold. Rather an openness to bibliomancy is simply to reaffirm literature as a vast, interconnected, endlessly mercurial field of potential where meaning is created by readers across centuries. While New Critics in the early part of the twentieth-century may have preferred to view poems as dead butterflies mounted by pin and preserved on cardboard, it’s true that the last three generations of literary theorists have been more amenable to the endlessly recursive play of literature. And yet for such a once profoundly popular practice, bibliomancy is under analyzed and under theorized. Under-used as well. I suggest that it’s time we take bibliomancy seriously, not because it’s literally an accurate means for ascertaining the future (though perhaps it’s a diverting trifle as you wait for Parliamentary troops to arrive), but because it resurrects an archaic yet valuable manner of approaching language which has been in eclipse since the birth of modernity. I’m not really concerned with whether bibliomancy literally works in casting our future (spoiler alert: I have my doubts), rather I am interested in its potential as both totem in demonstrating the flexible interconnectedness of literature, and as exercise in circumnavigating deficiencies in our own thought, by leaving some aspects of interpretation up to Fortuna.

As book critic Jessa Crispin writes in defending the creative possibility of Tarot, “the meaning of the cards comes from us.” That is fundamentally the case with any type of literary theurgy, whether it’s Tarot, automatic writing, or bibliomancy – they present a method of circumnavigating the conscious mind, drawing connections which might not be apparent to either logic or literalism. A venerable way of understanding how meaning is connected by that unseen, golden web of connotation that literary theorists with their jargony talk of “intertextuality” and “heteroglossia” only dimly approach. There is an infinite richness in how those in centuries past approached words (and by proxy the Word).

The great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem described the process of connotative reading practiced by the thirteenth-century kabbalist Abraham Abulafia (who also, it should be noted, tried to convert the Pope to Judaism – example under the dictionary entry for “chutzpa”). Scholem explains that Abulafia read through “’jumping’ or ‘skipping.’” He elaborates that this is the “remarkable method of using associations as a way of meditation… Every ‘jump’ opens a new sphere… Within this sphere the mind may free associate. The ‘jumping’ unites, therefore, elements of free and guided association and is said to assure quite extraordinary results as far as the ‘widening of the consiousness.’” Bibliomancy can be used to generate new ideas, or as Cicero explains in his work on divination the truths that are generated “from mental excitement of some sort when the mind moves free and uncontrolled.” The brain thus liberated by chance, fate, and fortune. Thus fortuna becomes a means of elucidating novel connections, while simple surface literalism remains largely mute. This is a type of reading where all interpretation is as bibliomancy, something which the early twentieth-century avant gardes from the Surrealists to the Dadaists understood well. For in recasting all books as spell-book, all literature as a potential grimoire, we accomplish not just clarification, but wonder as well.

Consider that both the Christian gospel of John famously begins with a declaration that “In the beginning there was the Word” and that Jewish kabbalah presumes the preexistence of the Hebrew alphabet before all else emanated forward in creation. Take the example of the Catalan Franciscan Ramon Llull, a thirteenth-century contemporary of Abulafia. Llull, a beatified not-quite-saint, is primarily remembered for his ars Magna, or “Great Art,” an intricate, baroque, labyrinthine method of calculation supposedly based on pure deductive axioms and in large part inspired by the work of Islamic logicians, and which Llull believed was an engine capable of answering any philosophical question posed to it. A type of tony, engineered bibliomancy. Llull’s ars Magna was manifested in an exceedingly odd book, whereby particular ideas had numeric assignations that could be combined in various permutations to arrive at novel conclusions (his work on combinatorics merits him as a potential “patron saint of computers”). Particularly unique in his manuscript were actual movable parts in the form of spinning paper wheels and gears, which could be manipulated in calculation. Central to Llull’s understanding was an orientation similar to Abulafia’s that the augury must “put the alphabet in this art in order to be able to make figures with it… for seeking the truth.” This mystical Franciscan saw the alphabet as the very ground of being upon which reality was constructed, and thus approaching literature is a means of ascertaining reality.

That exact same view would be promulgated by an equivalently enigmatic figure some centuries later, when in the late sixteenth-century Elizabeth’s court astrologer John Dee made a name for himself on the continent as an initiate in occult and mystical arts. As with Abulafia and Llull, the alphabet (whether Hebrew, Latin, or the astral “Enochian” one of his own discovery) was that with which divinity generated existence. Dee explains his views concerning the hieroglyphic arts in a letter to that most exulted of esoteric monarchs, Maximillian II of the Holy Roman Empire, whose Prague court featured all manner of wonders, from dancing dwarves and prophets, and the astronomer Johannes Kepler to the golem’s father Rabbi Judah ben Lowe. Dee explained to the king that “writings on the alphabet contain great mysteries… since He who is the only author of all mysteries has compared himself to the first letter and the last.” For Abulafia, Llull, and Dee the universe was born not from a primordial atom, but from a primordial “A,” not from the breath of God but from his command, from the first Hebrew letter “Aleph.” Not as ridiculous as it first sounds – that the alphabet both underlines and constructs reality. Consider that the answer to any question you would ever have on any subject, that the composition of any narrative you could ever conceive from the most debased to the most beautifully exulted, that the correct description for any event that did, or could have happened, or the accurate prophecy for anything that will or might happen, actually already exists in print, albeit in disorganized form. All is answered in the very words of whatever dictionary is closest to you. The task of the writer, prophet, and bibliomancer is simply to put those words in the right order.

A pre-modern idea whose time may yet come again? Historian Stephan Gerson observes that “Like formulas and incantations, words had obtained therapeutic or magical powers… They embodied hidden verities and divine ideas and the essence of things and people. By the Renaissance, they brimmed with meaning and could modify the natural world and sometimes transcend the symbolic realm to become analogies of the cosmos.” Bibliomancy returns us to an almost mystical embrace of the transcendent ways in which interpretations permeate a reality pregnant with meaning. This view of how language operates – admittedly theological – is one that we must embrace if we’re to resuscitate what is instrumental about literature. And it’s a perspective which is the historical norm, across cultures and religions, only exorcised from our normal discourse upon the disenchantments of the world. Prosaic models of comprehending meaning understand it as a static kernel, but bibliomancic reading sees the text itself as sentient, as somehow conscious.

Books are thus beings unto themselves, capable of defining their own role in the world; minds with agency capable of answering questions posed to them, of responding to queries beyond what’s literally printed on their pages. Scholar Michael Wood says as much in his cultural study of oracles when he writes that “The point is to ask us to think of the world as haunted by the divine, and to see how the divinity can talk to us through the world,” or as Walt Whitman put it in Leaves of Grass “I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name.” When we think of meaning as diffuse and capable of actually conversing back with us, what results is an asynchronous theory of influence across time, evoking an observation I once heard a scholar of medieval literature make, that “One of the best interpreters of T.S. Eliot was Dante.” Bibliomancy abolishes the tyranny of time and the authoritarianism of age; books are liberated from being stationary and are transformed into full partners with whom we can converse. Whether or not we use novels and poetry to caste lots or not, bibliomancy is a reminder that literature itself is a breathing thing, and an ever mercurial one at that.

Both individual works of literature and all of collective Literature compose the primordial alphabet, in which all answers to all questions lay dormant, occasionally becoming loud enough that we can hear them – and bibliomancy reminds us of that majesty. The French poet Max Jacob, reflecting on the writings of Nostradamus, once claimed that “the Prophecies contain the universe,” but this is only partially correct – all language contains the universe, all dictionaries encapsulate reality, all literature holds the cosmos. Bibliomancy teaches that none of us are passive readers, for we are all characters within literature itself, and that no book is an island, for all that has been written is like a giant continent crossed with highways, and every book, every story, every poem, every line is not just permeated with meaning, but is conscious of it as well. Bibliomancy demonstrates that we’ve always been alive, hidden between the very words on the page. Even if it is superstition, it is also an exercise in literature’s imaginative potential, where British kings can be hidden in Virgil, and where we all may live in Whitman, or Emily Dickinson, or whatever dog eared volume we treasure, whose cracked spine points fate towards those particular passages which illuminate our own fortunes, where we reside before we’ve even breathed, where we live before we were even born. Whatever we call it, whether the alphabet of Abulafia and Lull, or what Leibnitz called the Monad, or Jorge Louis Borges termed the Aleph, that generative letter which shows us everything, from “the coupling of love and the modification of death” where one can see “the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth” and where the Argentinean writer could see “your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon – the unimaginable universe.”

Literature is the unimaginable and the imagined universe, and books are the oracles which allow us to look upon that kingdom; bibliomancy the liturgy that reminds us of that sacred truth. Bibliomancy, as Scholem might say, “liberates us from the prison of the natural sphere and leads us to the boundaries of the divine sphere.” And what then is life itself, except a type of performative aleatory literature? A related observation: literary critics are the last theists. For those who spend any time amidst the vagaries of plot, whether critic or novelist, often read the story of our lives as if it followed the dictates of narratology (or at least I find myself doing that), as if some cosmic Author penned that tale. That’s not to imply that what the royals holed up in the Bodleian were doing was anything like literary criticism, and yet any reading of literature must defer to the strange glow of meaning which accrues on poetic language. We’re meaning making creatures, and more than that we’re story-telling animals as the critic Jonathan Gottschall calls us, with brains evolved to find patterns, seeing faces in the pareidolia of mountains and clouds. We just as often interpret the texture of narrative in sequences of unrelated events. What is fascinating about bibliomancy, or any of the related methods of divination from literature, is that rather than looking at the green of a sheep’s liver or the random distribution of some chamomile grounds in a saucer, the initiate is interpreting something which unequivocally already has intentional meaning – but it births it anew. Bibliomancy returns us to the charged potential and innate weirdness of literature, of fiction and poetry, of the sacred origins of language itself. And so I ask myself, what is the critical potential of such a practice? And I pose that question to a dog-eared copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the book answers me “They are but parts…. any thing is but a part,” so as to confirm that all poetry is but a side on that infinite Monad, but a single letter in that eternal alphabet. And I ask myself, what hope can bibliomancy offer us in our own epoch of uncertainty, our anxious age, and I in turn deliver that query to The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson and she, cryptically as any at Delphi or among the Sibyllines, answers with another interrogative “Who has Paradise” with no question mark, but only her eternally available em dash – signaling that all of literature is but a conversation that can never end, paradise always visible and yet never reached.

About the Author:

Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. A regular contributor at several different sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released by Zero Books this year. He can be followed on Facebook, at his author website, and on Twitter @WithEdSimon.