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Looking Back

Books and iPads

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January comes from the Latin Januarius, the first month of the year in the Gregorian calendar, so named to honor Janus, the two-faced Roman god of beginnings and transitions, and of doors and doorways. At midnight last Dec. 31, my family and I were on the 28th-floor helipad of a building in Makati watching fireworks sparkle all over the city. From this vantage point we compared competing fireworks from Ayala and Rockwell and welcomed 2013 with shouts, hugs and kisses. We had transitioned from the old year into a new one with hope.

Today a Janus-faced person is a deceitful person who puts on a good face for you but stabs you in the back, reminding us of that famous line from “Florante at Laura” that goes: “Kung ang isalubong sa iyong pagdating ay masayang mukha’t may pakitang-giliw, lalong pag-ingata’t kaaway na lihim.” Janus, however, is two-faced because one faces the past and the other looks at the future.

This reminds me of the wonderful epigraph from Jose Rizal’s juvenile play “El consejo de los dioses (The Council of the Gods, 1879)” that says “Con el recuerdo del pasado entro en el porvenir” (I enter the future remembering the past). This should be the mindset on this, the first month of 2013.

Aside from the above I think of books at the start of each new year because it also means turning a page, leaving the past year and its disappointments to look forward to a new year. I thought of books as I held the Newsweek issue of Dec. 31, 2012, the last print issue of a magazine that has gone digital. Last month, too, I was persuaded to get an iPad after years of resistance. I am a dinosaur who enjoys the physical pleasure of a book: its weight, the quality of its paper, printing and typeface, the smell of a newly printed, newly opened book. You can touch a book, hear the pages rustle, see text and image on a page, smell its scent, and if you have the bad habit of licking your fingers before turning a page, you can taste books, too.

Many years ago in the British Library I looked at an old book on Church power that was once owned by Henry VIII. On the page where the author said that to have many wives was not against the rules of the ancient Church fathers, the King wrote on the margin: “Ergo nec in nobis” (therefore, not in our [times]). If Henry VIII licked his index finger to turn pages of his book, then his DNA must be on them. The same could be true of books owned by Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Rizal, or Apolinario Mabini. All the developments in forensic science and technology will be a boon to historians. While an iPad also carries DNA on its screen, we have to be careful as studies have proven that our cell phones, iPads and computer keyboards have more germs than a public urinal.

What’s in my iPad? I loaded rare Filipiniana in my bookshelves: Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” translated from the original Spanish by Austin Craig. The “Fili” was available in the original Spanish so I got that, but not the “Noli” that is available in Tagalog and Dutch! Right now I’m reading “Recollections of Manila and the Philippines” by Robert MacMicking who described the country in the mid-19th century. I have other 19th-century travel accounts of the Philippines, and even obscure scholarly works like an 1887 pamphlet by Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera on Sanskrit in the Tagalog language!

An iPad does not provide the physical pleasures of a book as described above, but it is quite handy. Wonder about how many books I can store in my iPad reminded me of a time when I would order microfiche copies of rare books from the Rizal Library at the Ateneo because I wanted to be able to fit my entire reference library in a shoe box. Well, the problem with microfilm and microfiche was that you needed a bulky reader, then the materials had to be stored in a controlled temperature to avoid damage due to mold or humidity. When the Bank of the Philippine Islands put out the 55-volume “Blair and Robertson” in CDs, it seemed like a good idea as well, but when you have a whole library of discs it becomes a storage and portability problem again.

Books are an integral part of my life and I cannot seem to get enough of them. I made space at home and in the office by moving almost all the rare Filipiniana 10 years ago to the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University, but the empty shelves were easily filled over time, such that a few years ago many of the books I think I will never read, nor consult for my work or writing—about 5,000 volumes—were sent to the Kapampangan Studies Center of Holy Angel University in Pampanga. I realized that when I write this column or prepare for class I always use books on a particular shelf at home, so why keep everything? I don’t aspire for rare first editions anymore because a scan or photocopy is just as useful for me. I don’t need to own an entire Filipiniana library because there are many libraries where I can go for consultation.

I shouldn’t complain about books even if they run me out of the house because they have been steady companions, part of my livelihood, a constant source of pleasure. Thoughtful people still send me orphaned books knowing they will be well cared for and loved for a long time. I love my iPad, but I know that printed books are here to stay.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu


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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , books , column , fireworks , History , ipad



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