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Looking Back

A library of one’s own

/ 04:05 AM November 20, 2019

Books are my best friends; they can also be my worst nightmare. They grow everywhere, not just on shelves overflowing with them, but elsewhere in the house: the study, sala, bedroom, dining room, guest room. Only the kitchen, laundry area and toilets are free of them.

While I have too many books at home (others are in my Ateneo cubicle, while my rare volumes are in Kyoto University, and a whole room-full in Holy Angel University, Pampanga), I can’t have enough of them. Books are a temptation I cannot resist.

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Bibliophiles hoarding books is a guilt-free exercise. Knowledge between the covers is a justifiable end, unlike a pure luxury crocodile Birkin with white gold hardware ($370,000 at auction) that actually devaluates from day-to-day use. However, books are now available in soft copy, to be read on a Kindle or iPad and, in my case, stored as PDF files in an external drive.

Looking at the books in my library reminds me of historians from an older generation who all advised me to build a library as an investment in our profession. These scholars often had rare books from the Spanish period and early American period (late 19th to the early 20th centuries); some would have an odd volume or two from the 16th and 17th centuries acquired reasonably, long before auction houses drove up prices.

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Two decades ago, I bought a first edition “El Filibusterismo” (1891) for P500, and resold it for P8,000—quite a lot then for an undergraduate student on allowance. The very same book, if sold today, would fetch at least P1.5 million. Do I regret selling it? Yes, when I need money— but oftentimes, not so, because as a historian, I need the content of a book, even in photocopy or PDF; I don’t need to own a first edition. Fortunately, some very rare Filipiniana that some libraries or collectors wouldn’t even allow me to touch or see many years ago are now downloadable in high-resolution form for free from the Biblioteca Nacional de España. The problem is that I have so many files, it has become difficult to find material when I need it.

A personal library is not only the refuge of a writer, historian or academic, it is also a reference base or source of livelihood. One of my friends who wrote the occasional historical article was once given a substantial rebuttal in an academic journal that came with a barrage of impressive footnotes from sources that went way down to the 1800s: Trinidad H. Pardo de Tavera (Filipino), Fr. Manuel Blanco (Spaniard) and Jean Mallat (French). The bone of contention was that the distinguished and ever loyal city of Manila should be spelled with a “d,” as in Maynilad. So the “local writer” belittled by the author of the “scholarly article” looked up all the footnotes in his private library and found, to his amusement, that all of them spelled Maynila without the “d.”

The late Teodoro Agoncillo did not hide his contempt for people who padded the footnotes, references and bibliographies in their work to create an impression of scholarly industry. Some would list all the editions of one work to lengthen their bibliography, instead of just citing the one edition or book they actually used. Worse, some even listed books they hadn’t even read or seen. These people were exposed by the bibliographer Gabriel Bernardo, who withheld their names “for ethical reasons” in an engaging lecture on bibliographic problems in historiography. These “scholars” cited a translation of a Chinese text on the Philippines by Ma Tuan-Lin, giving credit not to the “Marquis d’Hervey St. Denis” but to a certain “Hervey St. Denis,” later “corrected” to read “Henry St. Denis.” If anyone tried to follow the paper trail from these fake footnotes, they would be lost in the bibliographic jungle.

The late Rizal scholar Esteban de Ocampo narrated how he was once stumped by a reference in the “Epistolario Rizalino,” compiled by Teodoro M. Kalaw, regarding a place that Kalaw noted as: “Donnerstag, [Alemania].” De Ocampo could not locate Donnerstag in any map or atlas, simply because it was not a place—it meant “Thursday.” A mistake he found out simply by leafing through a German-English dictionary. So, having a library of one’s own, even in the form of digital files in a thumb drive, will save one from ridicule.

Comments are welcome at [email protected] ateneo.edu

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TAGS: ambeth ocampo, Bibliophiles, books, knowledge, library, Looking Back
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