Living with books | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

Living with books

/ 05:15 AM November 27, 2020

I live with books. Water damage is my greatest nightmare.

I do not worry about thieves, because they target portable easy-to-sell items like watches, jewelry, cell phones, or laptops. A thief will generally ignore books, unless he is a specialist and pick up a first-edition “Noli me tangere” that usually fetches at least a million pesos at auction.


Most people fear fire, which can potentially wipe out everything they own. Living in a condo makes fire unlikely, but water damage from automatic sprinklers is a real possibility. If a neighboring unit catches fire, sprinklers automatically go off on the entire floor, and my library will be ruined. It pained me to see friends cleaning the sludge off their homes after Typhoon “Ulysses” struck; many of those people said goodbye to their books. A few refused to let go, putting out what they had managed to salvage to dry in the sun, but those books are beyond repair.

Nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo and his contemporary, the anthropologist E. Arsenio Manuel, recounted to me how they carted their books to the University of the Philippines Library for safekeeping shortly before the war. They believed the invading Japanese would respect the university, but to their horror heard that when the enemy occupied Manila, they made a huge bonfire of books from the UP Library. Whatever books remained were finished off during the Battle for Manila in 1945.


Both scholars rebuilt their lives and libraries after the war, and at the time of his death in 1985, Agoncillo had an important library not just for its rare volumes, but also for the many books that contained his typewritten notes and annotations glued to the pages and inside covers. People who were fortunate enough to borrow books from Agoncillo had to sign out for them in their handwriting on a logbook. Manuel was not as lucky; his house in the UP campus burned down in the 1970s. I was unable to ask Manuel to confirm or deny the urban legend that on the first night after the fire was contained, he slept on the ashes of his library.

When I was a postgraduate student researching under the magnificent blue dome of the Great Reading Room of the British Library in Bloomsbury, I felt a connection with so many others who had come before me. Karl Marx had a favorite spot there, a desk marked G7. Jose Rizal received his library card in August 1888 and for many weeks copied out, by hand, Antonio de Morga’s “Sucesos de las islas Filipinas,” a rare 17th-century book of which the library had two copies. Unlike in Marx’s case, we have no record of Rizal’s seat, and when I first inquired from a librarian, he suggested, in jest of course, that I sit in a different place each day for a year. That way I would have warmed Rizal’s seat but not know which one it was.

Once, I requested a 17th-century Filipiniana pamphlet that could not be located. After two requests, I inquired with a senior librarian, who disappeared into an office to dig up records and emerged to blurt out these pained words: “I’m afraid you have to blame the Germans for the loss of this book. Bombs dropped on the library in May 1941 and this rare tome was one of the casualties.” I then asked why it was still listed in the library catalog if it didn’t exist anymore, and he repeated: “You have to blame the Germans for the loss of this title.” I then suggested that instead of letting researchers wait for something that wasn’t forthcoming, the library should indicate in the catalog “Destroyed by Germans in 1941.”

Someone then told me about the German and British agreement to spare their major university towns from destruction: The Germans would not bomb Oxford and Cambridge in exchange for the British not bombing Heidelberg and Tübingen. We do know that Oxford survived the war relatively unharmed, but Cambridge suffered from air raids, so that’s probably an urban legend meant to show that even in war, education and scholarship were valued.

This weekend, the annual Manila International Book Fair proceeds online. I will miss spending a few hours signing books and greeting readers. Since I am too scared to fall into the rabbit hole of online shopping, I will miss adding more books to my pile of unread books this weekend, something the Japanese call “tsundoku.”


Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: books, Nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo, Noli Me Tangere, Typhoon Ulysses, UP Library, water damage
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