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Libraries as autobiographies

/ 05:04 AM December 03, 2021

For the second year now, National Book Week has come and gone relatively unnoticed because of COVID-19 restrictions. Before the pandemic, I would participate in book-related events like the International Children’s Book Day on April 2 that fell on or around Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday; the World Book Day on April 23, marking the day in 1616 that Shakespeare and Cervantes died. There were also the Manila International Book Fair (MIBF), the Philippine Readers and Writers Fair, and the Big Bad Wolf book sale, whose brisk business even now proves that despite the challenges posed by the internet, e-books, audiobooks, YouTube, and TikTok, the physical book is far from dead.

If there is anything I miss doing these past two years, it’s sitting for hours in the Dia del Libro at the Ayala Triangle or attending the MIBF and meeting readers and signing books. At the Ayala Museum (reopening this weekend), my 45-minute “History Comes Alive” lecture was followed by three hours of book signing. What has complicated matters in recent years is the need to smile for the obligatory selfie after signing.

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When the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, publisher of my heaviest book (literally at 3 kgs) “Yaman: History and Heritage in Philippine Money,” requested that I pre-sign 100 copies for the first 100 buyers, the exercise reminded me of grade school punishment. I blame my terrible penmanship on having been made to write “I will not talk in class” or “I will not be late for class” on the blackboard or on pad paper hundreds of times. I pre-signed 400 copies of my latest book, “Looking Back 16: Queridas de Rizal,” and received many complaints from people who bought quickly online and yet received unsigned copies.

It’s heartening to note that some people are still buying and reading physical books, because many of my students seem to believe that if a text is not available online, it doesn’t exist. In a face-to-face class, I give graded assignments that require a visit to the library to locate and handle physical books.

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I was fortunate to have grown up in a house with books, nurtured by a father who read for leisure. His love for books did not seem to pass on to my sisters or his granddaughters, but his favorite grandson caught the bug. Two cherished photographs of them show them reading: in one, lolo and grandson are on a sofa both holding books; in the other, they are reading from tablets.

My father didn’t read heavyweights like Tolstoy, Hugo, Schopenhauer, or Wittgenstein that I imagine inhabit Randy David’s shelves. His books were paperback detective books whose spines screamed Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane. He sometimes had two or three copies of the same book, because he judged books by their racy covers and only realized halfway through the first page that he had bought the same book with a different cover. In later life, his favorite authors were John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and James Patterson (not the same author as my friend James Hamilton-Paterson), and when his eyes grew weary with age, his reliable companion was a tablet with e-books and quick links to the New York Times, the Economist, and the Inquirer.

The home library of my childhood was a small dark wood-paneled room that doubled as the guest room. It was small compared to the library I had built for myself over the years—about 3,000 volumes at home, and double that off-site in my Ateneo cubicle, the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies Library, and the Kapampangan Studies Center at Holy Angel University. My library consists mostly of Filipiniana with small sections on my hobbies: numismatics, Oriental ceramics, old maps, and food. The library of my childhood had an assortment of professional books: business and engineering for my father, cookbooks for my mother, and medical textbooks my aunt had used at the University of Santo Tomas. The latter had a lot of nudity in them, providing me my early sex education and producing a mortal dread of venereal disease.

Two years of pandemic life has been spent shelving and reshelving books, picking out duplicates and books I don’t think I will ever read in the next decade, and deciding what to give away and what to sell. Sorting books has made me realize that my life is reflected in the books I read or own, even the books I throw away. Time to return to the lists of Rizal’s books, Bonifacio’s books, Mabini’s books, those owned or read by Quezon, Quirino, Marcos, even Rodrigo Duterte. Yes, libraries are autobiographies.

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