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Looking Back

Books and privacy

/ 01:32 AM September 17, 2014

What books are significant to you? Facebook introduced this challenge to get people engaged and read the advertisements that boost its revenues. Facebook friends ask the same intrusive question to get people to disclose a bit more about themselves. Don’t think too hard, they ask, just give a list. Since they insist, here is mine:

Rizal without the overcoat. Makamisa: The Search for Rizal’s Third Novel. Calendar of Rizaliana in the Vault of the Philippine National Library. Meaning and History: The Rizal Lectures. Bones of Contention: The Bonifacio Lectures. Aguinaldo’s Breakfast. Bonifacio’s Bolo. Mabini’s Ghost. Luna’s Moustache. Teodora Alonso. Talking History: Conversations with Teodoro A. Agoncillo. The Paintings of E. Aguilar Cruz. Looking Back. Dirty Dancing. Death by Garrote. Chulalongkorn’s Elephants. Rizal’s Teeth, Bonifacio’s Bones. Prehistoric Philippines. Storm Chasers. Virgin of Balintawak.


That list is self-serving, as all the titles are mine; all these are books that have been with me and significant to me for half my life.

What are the books I cannot live without? The list consists of reference works that I refer to regularly in my writing, teaching and lecturing:


Blair and Robertson. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898: explorations by early navigators, descriptions of the islands and their peoples, their history and records of the catholic missions, as related in contemporaneous books and manuscripts, showing the political, economic, commercial and religious conditions of those islands from their earliest relations with European nations to the beginning of the 19th century (55 volumes). Filipino Heritage (10 volumes). Kasaysayan: History of the Filipino People (10 volumes). Gregorio Zaide. Documentary Sources for Philippine History (12 volumes). J.R. M. Taylor. Philippine Insurrection against the United States (5 volumes). Escritos de Jose Rizal (25 volumes). Escritos de Marcelo H. del Pilar (2 volumes). Apolinario Mabini. Revolucion Filipina (2 volumes). La Solidaridad (8 volumes). Wenceslao E. Retana. Aparato bibliografico de la historia general de Filipinas, deducido de la coleccion que posee en Barcelona, la compania general de tabacos de dichas islas (3 volumes). W. E. Retana Archivo del bibliofilo filipino: recopilacion de documentos historicos, cientificos, literarios y politicos, y estudios bibliograficos (5 volumes). E. Arsenio Manuel. Dictionary of Philippine Biography (4 volumes). Zoilo Galang. Encyclopedia of the Philippines (10 volumes). CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art (10 volumes). Etc., etc.

That reference list is far from complete, but these books are on shelves behind my work table—literally an arm’s reach away. I learned from the examples of the late O.D. Corpuz and E. Aguilar Cruz that writers must have an array of dictionaries (in different languages), encyclopedias, atlases, etc. within reach, but all these occupy valuable space and have since become obsolete in the Internet age where one can draw information, data, or bibliographic references from Google. Come to think of it, Google has become so much a part of our daily life that the website name is now a verb. When a student asks a teacher a question, the reply can be “Google it.” Or in Filipino, “I-Google mo!”

My books are arranged my way. No more Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress classification for me. I once hired a professional librarian who organized my books in a way I could not understand. She broke up multivolume sets that went together; she removed dust jackets, making location of a book by cover impossible. She patiently explained that only I could find things but that with a card catalogue, anyone who came into the library could find books.

Mine was not a public library, so I paid the librarian for her work and rearranged everything into these sections: All reference works are closest to my table. Autographed books and rare books (Philippine imprints published before 1950) are in glass-faced cabinets in a walk-in closet. Art books are together. Books on food are together. Books on ceramics are together. Everything else is arranged chronologically by historical period—prehistoric Philippines, Spanish-period Philippines, Propaganda Movement, Philippine Revolution, Philippine-American War, American period, Japanese period, postwar period—and arranged by subsets by president from Manuel Roxas to Noynoy Aquino.

The most drastic book classification was done once when I was abroad: My well-meaning mother and three maids arranged the books neatly by size and color. I must admit it looked very impressive and organized, but I was unable to write for months, getting me so frustrated that I pushed all the books off the shelves and slowly reorganized them into my personal and eccentric system. We all know that Thomas Jefferson’s library formed the nucleus of the US Library of Congress, but if he were to visit that library today he would be confounded by the number of books and the classification system so different from his own.

I have heard people say, Show me who your friends are or show me what you eat and I will tell you who you are. We can expand this and say, Show me how you organize your books and I will tell you who you are. This explains why in the Philippines we wrap books to preserve them, but in Japan they cover books for privacy because others should not know what you read in public.

(Comments are welcome at


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TAGS: books, facebook, Jose Rizal, Language, literature, Reading
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