Sunday, August 14, 2011


A recent bookish Internet pastime, an internet meme, which rather harkens back to the sortes virgilianae, had me reaching for the nearest book to locate the 5th sentence on the 56th page, a reaching out to the breadth of randomness within a collective readership. (Perhaps these games are unconscious remnant longings for the bicameral brain, a nostalgia of the unconscious mind at play. Our dreams too are perhaps remnant offshoots of this oracular vision.) My eyes alighted on the closest book on the nearest shelf, Michael Dibdin's Cabal, and the sentence: "The Nun backed out, closing the door behind her." This was suitably prosaic in its context. The entertainment and amusement of this pastime being in the out-of-context juxtaposition of this sentence with other randomly chosen sentences posted by other suitably curious individuals. Some sentences were amusing in their singularity.

I am unsure who decided on the page number and sentence chosen, and whether this is but one of many random online bibliographic pastimes, but the specific vectors shared by each book undercut the complete randomness, and add a structural element not present in the ancient pastime of opening Virgil's Aeneid and alighting a finger on a spot whose line or lines of verse would answer a question in mind. But, then again, the latter's randomness was confined to one book and was essentially an event of private divination.

Curiosity led me on and I found myself investigating this specific location in many books. One benefit of this process was it refreshed my view of my bookshelves and the books thereon, many neglected and forgotten. Using this bibliographic dead reckoning I discovered that the great majority of the 5th sentences on page 56 were ones that the eye would sweep over in casual reading, while coming across a blank page was rather like having one's ear up to the sphinx's cold dry lips awaiting the sibilant whisperings of a riddle.

Only a few books provided sentences in that position with some textual weight. Of course that was not the game. It was all about spontaneity and chance, not a search for words dripping with colourful style. The following are a few examples that would go well with “The Nun backed out, closing the door behind her” either preceding or following:

He seemed, leaning on crimson damask, to take in the bright day.
-The Golden Bowl by Henry James.

I liked, as I like still, to make words look self-conscious and foolish, to bind them by the mock marriage of a pun, to turn them inside out, to come upon them unawares.
-Despair by Vladimir Nabokov.

If it wasn't for Anatole's cooking, I doubt if he would bother to carry on.
-Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse.

I fear I wasted too much time on such an amusement, and I apologize Dear Reader, if you have come this far and arrived at the same conclusion. Perhaps to add more gravity to this post, I should resort to a
sortes virgilianae, by the asking of my copy of Virgil's Aeneid, whether the world will ever come together and solve the problems of human suffering:

My random finger fell upon a section of the page after the end of Book 3, without text.

Perhaps I should interpret this as we must all provide our own text for the answer to such an important question.

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