Looking Back

How to talk about books you have never read


One of the things I hated about history classes in school was memorization. Some of my teachers made us memorize assorted facts: dates, names, places and events that fit into exam questions. Of course, all these were forgotten after the course ended, because the stray data were not relevant to life.

While memorization gives the mind some exercise, I believe that testing rote memory should not be considered for a grade as it is the lowest form of “learning.” I knew a handful of people who could memorize whole books, but I admired them only if they could go beyond rote and find connections in the data that make history meaningful.

When my students marvel at my ability to connect the dots, my skill in referring to obscure historical texts, they do not see the many years of reading that make history seem effortless. My basic historical training came from the late Augustinian historian of the Philippines, Fr. Isacio R. Rodriguez, over three decades ago. I popped into the Colegio de Agustinos Filipinos in Valladolid out of curiosity to see the Filipiniana in its museum and library. I planned to stay overnight and return by bus to Madrid, but Father Isacio sat me in the library, pulled out the first of many drawers in the card catalogue that listed the Filipiniana holdings, and told me to go over each and every entry. It took me three days to complete the task, so I ended up staying almost six days.

After familiarizing myself with the terrain, I looked up materials on Pampanga, the province of my father, beginning with books and printed materials, then moving on to manuscripts and transcriptions of 16th- to 19th-century documents. Laptops and the Internet were still a dream at the time, so after my fingers developed cramps from note-taking, I began reading texts into a tape recorder. The cassette tapes have never been transcribed and after 30 years have been deposited in the Center for Kapampangan Studies in Angeles, where someone may find use for them.

This old-fashioned training from Father Isacio became a habit and over the years, in libraries that allowed me to walk through the stacks, I went through entire Filipiniana collections shelf by shelf, book by book. This method provided many instances of serendipity, when I would stumble upon an item I wasn’t looking for, or an item I didn’t even know existed. I have done this physical survey of Filipiniana in: the Rizal Library of Ateneo de Manila, the University of the Philippines Main Library, the National Library, the shelves, vault and basement of the Lopez Memorial Museum, the Filipiniana collection in the Kroch Library of Cornell University, the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies Library, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto University, and the Sophia University Library, Tokyo.

In libraries with closed stacks like the British Library, Newberry Library in Chicago, US Library of Congress in Washington, New York Public Library, University of Michigan Library, and libraries in Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, France and Spain, I went through their electronic database and, in an earlier age, went through card catalogues as well as printed and typewritten shelf lists.

Just looking physically at books was half the battle; the real secret of any historian was knowing where to find particular books. One of the most underused books published by the UP Press was a 2-volume Union Catalog of Philippine Materials compiled by Maxima Ferrer that was always on sale and had little or no takers except for people who needed  a doorstop like me. One day I opened a volume at random and realized that it was not just a list of books; each entry indicated which library had a copy, so there was no need to waste time traveling to a library that didn’t have what you needed.

From Maxima Ferrer I graduated to the most useful list of Philippine materials on the Spanish period, the 3-volume Aparato bibliográfico de la historia general de Filipinas deducido de la colección que posee en Barcelona la Compañia general de tabacos de dichas islas (1906) compiled by Wenceslao Emilio Retana. It is more than a mere list because it contains a physical description of the book—size, number of pages, sometimes even a reproduction of the title page—and an abstract of its contents as well as comments on its reliability.

After Retana there are two other major bibliographies of the Spanish period on my reading list, both compiled by similarly obsessive-compulsive men: La imprenta en Manila desde sus origenes hasta 1810 by Jose Toribio Medina published in Santiago de Chile in 1896 and Biblioteca filipina ó sea Catálogo razonado de todos los impresos, tanto insula res como extranjeros, relativos á la historia, la etnografía, la lingüística, la botánica, la fauna, la flora, la geología, la hidrografía, la geografía, la legislación, etc., de las islas Filipinas, de Joló y Marianas by Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera, published in Washington by the US Government Printing Office in 1903.

Unfortunately, Retana, Medina and Pardo de Tavera have not been translated from the original Spanish and remain inaccessible to a generation of Filipinos separated from their past because of language. If you read any or all of these bibliographies, you will know what books to read and avoid. Reading these enables the scholar to talk impressively about books he has never opened or read.

* * *

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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Tags: Ambeth R. Ocampo , books , education , learning , Looking Back , opinion

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