3 Must-Try Practices for Book Lovers
Tsundoku, Jólabókaflóð, and Quaestio Divina
If you are a bibliobibuli, try these practices to joyously continue your exploration of books.
It is clear to anyone entering my house that I am obsessed with books. They cram shelves and spill onto the floorboards. Towering piles are perched precariously on my nightstand. My backpack is overloaded with must-reads. When I travel, my luggage is consistently overweight from acquiring new esoteric texts.
Bookshops and libraries are my sacred spaces, where worshippers sit in agreed-upon silence, together yet alone, sipping hot tea while exploring new realms.
I delight in finding ingenious excuses to keep reading. Here are a few favorites.
The practice of tsundoku takes little training at all. The word comes to us from Japanese, combining two characters: 積 (pile up) + 読 (read). Thus, to embark on this path means simply to acquire books and other reading materials, then let them pile up to be read in the future.
Adapt it: Set aside a day to pile with purpose. Mindfully look at the titles of each book in your stacks and feel into how it could be categorized: Read soon, read later, donate, store away, or gift. Next, schedule daily reading time. Each morning with my breakfast, I read for 10 minutes, then do a meditation to see what shakes loose—a “Do not disturb” sign on my door keeps that time sacred and uninterrupted.
During the winter holidays, jólabókaflóð―jól (Yule) + bók (book) + flóð (flood)―inspires friends in Iceland to exchange books on Christmas Eve as an annual flood of new releases hits bookshop shelves. It is expected that you will spend the remainder of the evening actually reading.
Adapt it: Transform your book club into a reading club. Exchange books with family, friends, or whomever is in your pandemic bubble, and then spend time silently reading together.
Of course, neither of these fun-to-pronounce words suggests just how we are to read. And so, for us spiritual folks, perhaps the most useful practice we can cultivate comes from Bernadette Flanagan, author of Embracing Solitude: Women and New Monasticism.
This method is useful for those of us who devour non-fiction, reading to learn, rather than for entertainment or relaxation. If your shelves are overflowing with sacred texts, historical volumes, and spiritual biographies then check this out.
Combining the Latin words quaestiō (to inquire) + divina (divine), Flanagan recommends quaestio divina for avoiding mindless spiritual reading in favor of reading as divine inquiry. Because when reading mindlessly, we simply collect abstract thoughts without any connection to the lived questions which can be investigated. Instead, Flanagan suggests that we engage reading as a spiritual practice: “All the reading, reflection, attentiveness, conversation, analysis, and activity involved in undertaking research can form a sense of personal encounter with God.”
To underscore this point, she turns to Theophan the Recluse, whose early 19th century reflection is a perfect fit for our age of 21st century snark:
“You have a book? Then read it, reflect on what it says, and apply the words to yourself. To apply the content to oneself is the purpose and fruit of reading. If you read without applying what is read to yourself, nothing good will come of it, and even harm may result. Theories will accumulate in your head, leading you to criticize others instead of improving your own life. So have ears and hear.”
Applying content to ourselves means asking deep questions—not just highlighting quotes to plop onto our own Instafeeds. Inquiring through reading means to slow the process down.
Adapt it: Read a page or two, then reflect on what you have read. Consider the implications for your own life. How might your experience be similar to what you have read? And, in the event you read something you vehemently disagree with, consider, “What is this bringing up in me?” Alternate your reading with meditation, letting concepts sink in, rather than just hurrying through to get to the next book in your pile. Savor. Each. Word.
Over 50 years ago, satirist H.L. Menken coined a term for people like me―and some of you, too―bibliobibuli―combining Greek and Latin words to suggest we get drunk not on whiskey, but on books. Although the term fits, I disagree with his opinion that we “wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.”
With respect to Menken, this bibliobibuli has tackled her tsundoku through jólabókaflóð and is now engaged in some serious quaestio divina. Amen.
Discover Sarah’s cherished texts about animals in Animal Divina.