Bibliomancy For The Living Autobiography In The Third Person
Thoughts about my new project here, autofiction, third person memoir and living autobiography.
What was there to do with a newsletter besides the updating of readers on new publications and classes? This question has been on my mind for several years, going back to when Substack approached me about the possibility of writing a paid newsletter four years ago. I didn’t do it at the time as I didn’t want to begin without an idea—didn’t want to write one of those blogs that eventually petered out because the work was unpaid. I have an older TinyLetter newsletter—I have always liked the idea of letters—and I kept that going for a few years, and it even helped generated my first essay collection. But I eventually abandoned it, as many folks did, mostly as I kept writing what were effectively essays for no pay.
But for much of the last year I have been thinking about memoir and autofiction, specifically through the lense of Patricia Lockwood’s Nobody Is Talking About This and J. M. Coetzee’s Scenes From Provincial Life, thoughts born from the Shipman classes I taught in 2023. I had been interested in the idea of a third person memoir ever since meeting Salman Rushdie at the launch for his Joseph Anton, a third person memoir of his life under the fatwa. When I met Deborah Levy at an event she did with my friend Daniel Schreiber here in London last month, her idea of a living autobiography, as she has called her most recent books, stippled my imagination too. The dream of writing out of the present, in a kind of diarist’s pose but in the third person.
After thinking about how to introduce the project, I decided to begin with a bibliomancy exercise, one I teach students, which I think of as a kind of tarot reading but made of epigraphs. I first learned about Bibliomancy in college while reading the novel Adam Bede, by George Eliot, her novel set in a community of 18th century Evangelical Christians in America. One of the characters in the novel engaged in it: you have a question for God and then to get an answer, you open the Bible with your eyes closed, running your finger down the page. When your finger stops, you open your eyes and that's your answer from God.
The practice reminded me of how I like to browse bookstores and libraries and even my own bookshelves at home when he felt stuck, pulling books off the shelf and flipping them open at random, and I suddenly the habit a little differently. As a way to communicate with myself.
The bibliomancy exercise goes like this:
Take a notebook and pen and go to a library, to the fiction stacks, poetry, autobiography, literary criticism, literary journals... maybe even choose a different genre for each selection.
Ask, "What should I be writing about?" And for 60 minutes—set a timer even—wander the stacks, flipping open books at random. Pause before the shelf, and if you want it to be more like a Tarot card reading, close your eyes, reach out with your non-dominant hand and see if there’s a book that feels like it is pulling at you, maybe even warmer than the others. Flip it open and if you like, run your finger down the page, or, just read the two facing pages for a passage that speaks to you. Write it down along with the title and author, even the page number if you want to find it again.
Do this 6 more times.
Read the list of quotes and look for a common theme or themes. Write them down. Are there any images or ideas that repeat or images or ideas that speak to your own ideas? Is there even just a line you like particularly?
The idea behind the exercise is to use the quotes as a way to begin to make connections first to what you are thinking about as the themes emerge are typically unconscious to the querent, giving shape to something they’ve been thinking about, not necessarily because of any mystical element, but because of synchronicity. The arrangement of unfamiliar elements allows the ideas to surprise us, to dress in a costume that allows them to be heard.
When I assign this exercise, I typically joke that this is witchcraft, and while that is a joke, I do feel as if I am casting a spell on myself. The results seem uncanny and precise. Like these, taken from the books in the London architect’s apartment I am subletting this term—a sublet’s library always exerts a particular pull.
My London Letters Bibliomancy Experiment Answers as to what the letters should be about.
Presented with a bewildering, indecipherable network of passages, doors, stairs and rooms, it was as easy to get lost as on purpose.
—Robin Evans, Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays, pg. 102
Not quite symbiotic like Baker and her Paris, the relationship of Cahun and Jersey is characterized less by mutual dependency than mutual cooperation. The artist and the island are independent of each other yet they are held together by a similitude—an underlying identity.
—Diarmuid Hester, Nothing Ever Just Disappears, pg. 175
In Douglas Copeland’s 1995 novel Microserfs, a group of programmers at Microsoft (former art school students like the author) find themselves disgusted with their evil company and their endless work lives: “the first generation of Microsoft employees faced with reduced stock options and, for that matter, plateauing stock prices.” “I guess,” the narrator concludes, “that makes them mere employees, just like at any other company.”
—Nikil Saval, Cubicle, pg. 265
We sat down and Skinny told me what I had to do. He said the house was empty and they’d help me get up on the roof. I’d have to climb down into the garden and get inside through a small window that didn’t have any glass in it. Then I had to open one of the windows on the street and come back to where we were. They’d meet me there. Skinny repeated what I had to do a number of times and told me exactly where to find the window. He seemed to know the house inside out, he told me where every room was.
—Mario Vargas Llosa, The Time of the Hero, pg. 277
I found an inn tucked away under the aqueduct, conveniently roofed by one of its arches—a vast cave-like place of naked granite smelling warmly of pigs and horses.
—Laurie Lee, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, pg. 93
I will kill our one and only cock, the pride of the village, cockerel then, as you will have such an obscene mind, and a bottle of sloe gin will be opened for your pleasure over a vast wood fire at night.
—Dora Carrington to Virginia Woolf, 31 October 1918, excerpted in The Bloomsbury Cookbook by Jans Ondaatje Rolls, pg. 158
“I could tell you my adventures –beginning from this morning,” said Alice a little timidly; “but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”
“Explain all that,” said the Mock Turtle.
“No, no! The adventures first,” said the Gryphon in an impatient tone: “explanations take such a dreadful time.”
—Alice In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, pg. 106
The Alice quote is so exact, it felt like a cosmic prank, but all of them speak to me and I will most likely use it in the front of whatever book this becomes. I may even use each of these as an epigraph to the first letters. I’ll do another one next for the novel I’m working on here.
For the month of October, the first four of these letters here will be available whether you are paid or unpaid subscribers. I hope you’ll enjoy the experiment.