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Looking Back

Furniture of the mind

/ 10:02 PM December 04, 2012

Thomas Jefferson’s library formed the nucleus of the present US Library of Congress, which is at present the largest library in the world with 32 million catalogued volumes and many, many more in other formats: manuscripts, films, recordings, photographs, etc. It is also the largest library in the world in terms of shelf space. Wikipedia gives the figure at 1,349 kilometers, but I know this distance grows annually. Imagine shelves placed end to end, spanning a distance longer than Manila to Jolo. These figures boggle the imagination since I grew up using libraries in Manila, public and private, whose collected holdings are a fraction of the Library of Congress’ collection.

The Library of Congress functions as a reference library for the US Congress, so that any legislation can be backed up with research material on practically every subject in the universe. The original Library of Congress, which had about 3,000 books, burned down in the 19th century prompting Jefferson to donate his own private library of over 6,000 volumes collected over half a century. Imagine a man who owned more than the original Library of Congress? Imagine a man who read voraciously on topics from politics to astronomy to gastronomy.

One of the library experiences that changed my life was walking into a special Jefferson exhibit in the Library of Congress in 2000, thanks to a Fulbright Senior Research Fellowship. Every book in Jefferson’s library was on display in old-style wood and glass shelves, following Jefferson’s own method of book classification. Today almost all libraries follow the Library of Congress’ classification or the Dewey Decimal Classification of books, but in 2000 the library arranged Jefferson’s books his own way so that visitors walking in between the shelves would literally be walking inside Jefferson’s mind. If the mind is a house built on memory of experiences, education, etc., books form the furniture of the mind.


In retrospect, it would have been engaging to have done the same for Jose Rizal in 2011 because to recreate his library and allow people to look or walk around the shelves would give them an experience of seeing the furniture of Rizal’s mind.

For 2013, someone can work with the list of the books Andres Bonifacio kept in the bodega where he worked in 1896. Compared to Rizal’s library, it is a modest collection made up of his own books, together with loans from Emilio Jacinto and Pio Valenzuela. If the National Library, for example, could gather the same editions of all the books Bonifacio read, those contemplating the book shelf can form an idea of the furniture in the Supremo’s mind, the works that inspired him to launch the Philippine Revolution against Spain. Perhaps I should offer to curate this simple but mind-blowing exhibit for Bonifacio@150.

Come to think of it—I am myself thinking that having a second look at Rizal’s library might provide new insights too. Fortunately, the late Esteban de Ocampo (no relation) compiled an almost complete list in a monograph, “Rizal as Bibliophile,” by drawing from references to books in Rizal’s writings as well as the 252 library call slips Rizal himself made, which used to be displayed in Fort Santiago. Missing from De Ocampo’s work are 99 more call slips that are presently preserved in the Lopez Memorial Museum.

We know Rizal read the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. The Lopez museum has the card for Hans Christian Andersen’s tales that Rizal translated from German to Tagalog and illustrated for his nephews and nieces: “Ang Puno ng Pino” (“The Little Fir Tree”); “Gahinlalaki” (“Thumbelina”); “Ang Pangit na Sisiu ng Pato” (“The Ugly Duckling”); “ Ang Sugu” (“The Angel”); and “Ang Batang Babaing May Dalang Sakafuego” (“Little Match Girl”).

We know Rizal was partial to French literature: “The Three Musketeers” and the “Count of Montecristo” were his favorites, as well as the works of Charles Dickens like “David Copperfield.” We know Rizal read the “Barber of Seville” as well as the “Marriage of Figaro,” and it would not be farfetched that during his many travels he caught the opera versions of these books in the same way we catch the film versions of the books we read.

Of course Rizal read Filipiniana. He brought with him to Europe a copy of “Florante at Laura” as well as a book on arithmetic in Tagalog, fearful that he would forget his own language due to lack of practice.

Rizal owned some very pragmatic books as well. A systematic traveller, he had Baedeker guides to Germany, the Rhine, Central Italy, Paris and Switzerland. Because bibles were not allowed in the Philippines, and Filipinos were not allowed to read these by themselves, Rizal bought not one but three bibles—one in Spanish, “Biblio Hebraica” (perhaps, what we know as the “Jerusalem Bible” today) in two editions, one Catholic, and the third a translation from Latin or Vulgate. We presume he learned enough Greek in the Ateneo Municipal to read the New Testament in the original. Because he was interested in the Philippine colonial condition and considered settling Calamba people in North Borneo, he read “Colony Building,” James William B. Money’s “Java: or How to manage a colony,” and Nasau Lee’s “Tea cultivation, cotton and other agricultural experiments in India.” Rizal also read the “Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte” (whom he admired, according to family lore, because of his height), as well as the “Lives and Pictures of the Presidents of the United States (also read by Bonifacio).

If we can know a person by the company he keeps, we will get to know our heroes better by the books they read.


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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, books, Looking Back, opinion, Thomas Jefferson Library
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