You’ve undoubtedly seen, and responded, to this meme:
- Grab the nearest book.
- Open it to page 56.
- Find the fifth sentence.
- Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
- Don’t dig for your favorite book, the cool book, or the intellectual one: pick the CLOSEST.
It’s astoundingly resilient, the so-called “page 56” meme. There were “about 22,100,000 million results” on Google when I looked the other day, and by the time you read this, I’m sure there will be still more. While I haven’t looked at all of these, the earliest appearances of the meme come from the fall of 2008. The mention of posting “in your journal,” as opposed to as a Facebook status or in some other internet format, points to its being older than 2008, perhaps. But nonetheless, the meme continues to circle back again and again online, as though it were a comet in a particularly tight orbit. What accounts for its popularity?
The idea of opening a book at random to see what it says isn’t new, as it happens. It’s Saint Augustine who gives us the best ancient evidence. As a young man, Augustine relates in his Confessions (4.3), he was much drawn to astrology, and recalls a conversation he had with a former practictioner who had given it up as a fraud. Augustine, still a believer, protests.
When I asked him to account for the fact that many true things are foretold by astrology, he answered me, reasonably enough, that the force of chance, diffused through the whole order of nature, brought these things about. For when a man, by accident, opens the leaves of some poet (who sang and intended something far different) a verse oftentimes turns out to be wondrously apposite to the reader’s present business. “It is not to be wondered at,” he continued, “if out of the human mind, by some higher instinct which does not know what goes on within itself, an answer should be arrived at, by chance and not art, which would fit both the business and the action of the inquirer.”
“By chance and not by art,” non arte sed sorte, is a great turn of phrase. Among the Romans, the standard volume to consult was Virgil’s Aeneid, and the custom was called the sortes Virgilianiae, “Virgilian lots,” about which there is a recent discussion by Mary Beard on her blog, “A Don’s Life.”
It was not just classical texts that were consulted by lot. Later in the Confessions (8.12), Augustine is on the verge of conversion to Christianity, and recounts the following famous story:
Suddenly I heard the voice of a boy or a girl I know not which–coming from the neighboring house, chanting over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; pick it up, read it.” Immediately I ceased weeping and began most earnestly to think whether it was usual for children in some kind of game to sing such a song, but I could not remember ever having heard the like. So, damming the torrent of my tears, I got to my feet, for I could not but think that this was a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage I should light upon. …
Augustine is not the only Christian to have consulted the Good Book haphazardly for wisdom. During the First World War, Alvin York of Tennessee agonized over his status as a conscientious objector, and reaching for his Bible came across the lines, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. His story was later made into the famous movie starring Gary Cooper (the moment of Biblical revelation is at 8:45 in the clip below).
Are people who respond to the popular “page 56” meme similarly looking for insight, for direction, for an epiphany of some sort? I suppose, with 22+ million separate data points, any variety of reasons could be found, ranging from fortune cookie-level prognostication to a kind of roulette amusement. The immediate difference between the sortes Virgilianae or Biblicae and the “page 56” meme is the audience. With the meme, one is intended to make public display of the random sentence, while for Augustine and Sergeant York, the impetus for consulting the Bible was a private matter (although each later made damned sure the whole world knew what they’d stumbled on). Speaking only for myself, I think the meme satisfies a certain vanity. It gives you yet one more thing to post on a social media site. The real book that’s being consulted with the “page 56” meme is Facebook, and the real reason to post a random sentence is to give the world yet another chance to “like” you, which is of course Facebook’s sole and entire purpose.
Postscript. It’s only occurred to me now that consultation by sortes requires a codex, and can’t be done very effectively with a scroll. This would date the practice to the first century AD. But, as I have thought in the past, the way we read on-line is a return to the scroll–indeed, we “scroll down” as we read on the screen. I suppose, then, that the “page 56” meme represents a strange intersection of scroll and codex–in the decades to come, will it be the case that people no longer have books to grab and pages to open to? I can hardly imagine it, but then again, I have seen albums, tapes, and now CDs go the way of all flesh. Will the “page 56” meme, then, be a relic of a time when people possessed both books and screens? Will the idea of “opening to a page” be as outdated a phrase as “dialing a phone number”?