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Looking Back

‘BR’ and different reasons for reading books

/ 09:20 PM October 23, 2012

WHEN I lived with my parents, their visitors would often be given an obligatory tour that included a stop in my library, which occupied two of the biggest rooms in the house. If I was unfortunate to be working at the time of the intrusion, I would often be given a sorry look and ignorantly asked, “Nabasa mo na ba lahat ng librong yan?” (Have you read all those books?) Often I would ignore the question, but on bad days I would say something like, “Not yet, I’m stuck in the Oxford English Dictionary right now, actually in letter ‘O’ between ‘orangutan’ and ‘orgy’.”

Now that I have my own home, people invited over know my work and I am delighted when somebody asks to see the library. Nobody asks if I have read all the books on the shelves, knowing that we read for different reasons: we read for information, we read for pleasure, we read for work or research, we read when we are bored. With some practice we learn to skim through books to get what we want or need, and that doesn’t require us to read books from cover to cover. Sometimes the social call turns into a pilgrimage—like when I apologized about the mess, and a US Embassy official said it was alright as he touched my working table reverently and asked, “Is this where it all happens?” One day I should write an extended essay about the books that shaped me and require my future students to write about one book that shaped them.

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When I read about Newsweek giving up its paper edition and shifting completely to a digital or online version, I wondered what the world will be when people read from iPads and computer screens instead of flipping the pages of a physical book and indulging in the sensory pleasure of: seeing the font type on a page or the color of a book cover, smelling the scent of book paper, feeling the texture and weight of paper, hearing the ruffle of moving pages, or even tasting a page with the tongue.

As a college student on allowance, I starved to acquire the 55-volume compilation of documents on the Spanish Philippines that historians fondly refer to as “Blair and Robertson” from the surnames of the compilers Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson. In academic citation this bulky series is often reduced to a nickname, “BR.” Then as now, the first edition published from 1903-1909 was beyond my budget. I required a copy for reading, not a trophy to be locked in a bank vault or proudly displayed behind glass. There were two BR reprints available in the early 1980s—one was a clothbound Taipei edition on very thin paper made under the direction of Carlos Quirino in the 1960s; then there was a 1973 edition by Cacho Hermanos that compressed the 55 volumes into 19. The set I saved up for was from Mar C. Sanchez, the octogenarian Filipiniana dealer who had the above 19-volume Cacho Hermanos-set broken up and re-bound back to make 55, like the original. It was expensive at P3,000, and the late E. Aguilar Cruz advised me against buying it since he considered it a reference work not to be bought since it could be consulted in a university library or the Lopez Museum. Instead I followed Teodoro Agoncillo’s advice to invest in my own library so I need not rely on a library when I wanted to use the books at 3 a.m. Today BR is available on CDs, thanks to the Bank of the Philippine Islands, which burned a set to commemorate its 150th anniversary in 2001. BR can also be read rather slowly online from: Project Gutenberg (Vols 1-25 only) or the University of Michigan Digital Library (complete) that links to their extensive Filipiniana collection.

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Have I read BR from cover to cover? No, but I tried it once when I entered the Benedictine Abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat in Manila. BR was the only thing I carried into the cloister from the outside world in hopes that I would not only read all 55 volumes from cover to cover but annotate these too. I never got beyond volume 8. This is why I remain awed by historian and former Education Secretary O.D. Corpuz  who read BR from cover to cover, not once but twice! While I have dipped into BR many times and have probably read over half of it in the past three decades, I don’t have the discipline to do an Onofre Corpuz.

E. Aguilar Cruz told me to give up on BR and proposed an easier challenge: He would have a medal struck for me or for any young person who could plow through A. G. Hufana’s 1975 epic on the Third Reich, which is titled “Sieg Heil!” I took up the challenge and bought a copy from the now extinct Erehwon bookshop in Makati only to be floored because Alejandrino G. Hufana (1926-2003) had written the epic in verse!  Worse, Hufana did better than Ricaredo Demetillo’s “Barter in Panay” (1961) because he had published four epics: “Sickle Season” (1959), “Poro Point” (1961), “Sieg Heil” and “Imelda Marcos: A Tonal Epic” (1975). These books are all out of print today, and the only people who can be conferred medals for reading them are literary critics or PhD students who need an obscure topic for a dissertation. The late Joseph Galdon wrote, “Hufana, it seems to me, is just grinding out propaganda, and I don’t see any discipline with him, any structure.”

Can we tell what a person is like from the books he read or did not read? Watching the US presidential debates, I wondered how Obama and Romney would answer a question about the last book they read and why.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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TAGS: `blair and robertson’, Ambeth R. Ocampo, books, Reading
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