Looking Back

Rare Filipiniana and books that ‘spark joy’

/ 04:04 AM September 16, 2020

Books multiply like weeds in the tight space where writers and historians live and work. Shelves require ruthless pruning to accommodate new arrivals, and have to be endlessly arranged and rearranged to make books easy to locate when needed. Since shelves are finite, I doubled their capacity by filing two rows of books per shelf. In the future, I will follow the advice of Rayvi Sunico to have shelves custom-built deep enough to accommodate two rows of books, but with a riser to make the back row books visible from those in the front.

Books are filed by subject: Dictionaries, Bibliographies, and References are literally within reach from my work table, accessible without the use of a step ladder. The same goes for Rizaliana, which I use frequently. Books on National Artists are in one area, books on Art in another, and Philippine history is filed by period: Prehistoric, Spanish period, Propaganda Movement, Philippine Revolution, Philippine American War, American Period, and Japanese Occupation. The Commonwealth and Postwar periods are subdivided by Presidents: Quezon, Osmeña, Roxas, Quirino, Magsaysay, Garcia, Macapagal, Marcos, Aquino 1, Ramos, Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo, Aquino 2, and Duterte. Aguinaldo and Laurel are wedged within their specific time periods.


My mother didn’t care for such a complicated system. Once, while I was abroad, she thought she was doing me a favor by rearranging the books neatly by size and color.

Books that couldn’t be accommodated after the last purge were arranged in a large pile and sorted one by one to determine if these still “sparked joy.” Some books were given away, some exchanged, the rest to be dispersed in an online flash sale. The Antiquarian Filipiniana, books by Filipinos or on the Philippines published before 1945, are to be sold as a collection. Majority are out of print, scarce due to small print runs, and are considered “rare.” Like exotic pets, these require special care. Stored in a dark room, behind glass-covered shelves, the books are in an area far away from the water sprinklers that I hope will never come to action, in a space where temperature and humidity are monitored daily. Rare Filipiniana occupies a third of this secret room, together with a collection of autographed and personally inscribed books whose final disposition remains vague in my will.


I have grown weary of being a steward of the Rare Filipiniana, especially since I have soft copies of almost all the rare titles in a portable hard drive. Book-loving friends ask: “Why sell the rare Filipiniana? Isn’t it unpatriotic for the collection to leave the country? What will you do with the money from the sale?”

To make sure I don’t buy more books to fill the empty shelves, I plan to sell half a room of books in exchange for a handful of very rare Filipiniana. Instead of caring for a collection, I’d limit it to three, not more than five, titles. What would these be? Definitely not first editions of Rizal’s: “Noli me tangere” (Berlin, 1887), “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas” (Paris, 1890), and “El Filibusterismo” (Ghent, 1891). I simply want an autographed copy of any one of Rizal’s books. Another unicorn would be the “Doctrina Cristiana en lengua española y tagala” (Manila, 1593), because the only extant copy in the universe is in the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Another unicorn will be on the block this weekend at Leon Gallery: Pedro Murillo Velarde’s “Historia de la Provincia de Philipinas” (Manila, 1749), which is only rare and desirable when it comes complete with the engraved frontispiece by Lorenzo Atlas depicting the venerated Virgins of Antipolo and De la Rosa (in Makati), and the 1744 map of the Philippines by Nicolas de la Cruz Bagay. A copy of the book without map and frontispiece went unsold at auction years ago at P100,000. In 2015, a complete book also went unsold at auction because its plates were badly hand-colored, bringing down its value which was then estimated between P2.8 million and P3.5 million. When the same book returned to auction in 2017, with a lower estimate of between P1.4 million and P1.6 million, it sold for P2,569,600.

The book on the block this weekend may unfortunately sell for the map alone, because the price set for a detached map in 2017 was P3.2 million (it was 40,000 euros in 2009). If I had the funds, I would buy this Murillo book without thinking. But, alas, I am an academic cursed with a fine sense of history and very expensive taste.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, Filipiniana books, Looking Back, Philippine history
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