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Old books’ home

Secondhand bookstores have taught me some of life’s valuable lessons.

Spending hours slumped in a corner of a room full of yellowing paperbacks and hardbounds, I learned that great things are not sought, but “stumbled upon.”

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No, I’m not talking about finding my Hugh Grant in a bookshop a la Julia Roberts in “Notting Hill” (though that is such an ideal love story), but the simple joy of unexpectedly finding a good book at the right moment. Whether it’s that rare first edition or a literary master’s work for a fraction of its original price, the chance of stumbling upon a good book in a secondhand bookstore is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

How bizarre was it to find a 1900s copy of Emily Dickinson’s complete poem collection or a masterpiece of Maya

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Angelou for the price of an MRT ride? The delight is unexplainable. I like to call those moments serendipity, ones that fall in the grand scheme of things. But for me, buying a book often becomes a matter of timing: Is this the right moment? If I don’t buy it now, will our paths cross again? Shall I let it go and hope a better copy pops up? Most of the time this kind of questioning applies to life opportunities and decisions—the pain of choosing to let go, hoping for a better chance the second time, or succumbing to the impulse of seizing the moment because it may never come again.

A book hunt may be a fitting metaphor for life, but my deep affinity with used books is a combination of artistic and practical reasons. I treat old copies as precious artifacts—of attachments and detachments, connections and misconnections—marked by every change of ownership, with the sweet smell of chemical breakdown on paper affirming my old soul’s penchant for histories and shared knowledge.

The practical reason is, of course, I cannot always afford to buy new copies.

I put it this way: My appetite for books is inversely proportional to my economic capacity to buy them. Because I cannot develop a liking for e-books, I still prefer the good old duo of paper and glue. But in a Third World country marked by low wages, high tax rates, and whopping prices of even the basic commodities, reading has become a luxury. In sum: New books are expensive.

George Orwell was right when he said in his 1936 essay, “Bookshop Memories,” that “… a bookshop is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.” Orwell wrote the essay, however, to lament his experiences while working as an assistant in a secondhand bookstore, and to narrate how being a bookseller developed his distaste for books. He noted the “rarity of really bookish people” visiting the shop. He reached the point when even the “sweet smell of decaying paper” appealed to him no longer. I could never fathom how he came up with that judgment, because I strongly feel otherwise.

When I was still a student, secondhand bookstores on campus were my haven. As much as I love books, my meager allowance was just enough for school requirements. Even if I managed to acquire the extra funds to buy some, a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez for the price of six meals feels like a dagger in my chest. The polished shelves, the plastic cover and hefty price tags serve as barriers for me to get to know an author. Marketing books into binaries—bestselling or not, written by newbies or by award-winning/famous authors—which of course influences the price and position in shelves, steal the life out of good books. One needs to look at the state of popular literature today to understand why.

So, instead of the comfort of malls, I prefer to meet authors on footbridges and in underpasses, corner stores, thrift shops and online bookstores, where dusty, obscure or rare books mix with writing giants to provide me with the literary pleasures I wouldn’t have enjoyed had I purchased them for the full price. Because I do not want to meet authors on a pedestal, secondhand bookstores allow me to know them through their works’ most basic form. I have the freedom to declare for myself what’s a good title or not, what I want to read versus what others are reading. Whenever I stumble upon good titles, I feel the urge to “adopt” them instead of “purchase” them—the feeling of having the desire to give them a home than the economic capacity to own them.

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The accessibility and affordability of reading are important fabrics of a community. While books have made local and global industries—in production, distribution, publication and retailing—they shouldn’t lose their emancipatory potential in the process.

Some, if not most, writers write to earn a living, but their works can truly serve a social function if structures of their literary lives are detached from commercialization and organized capitalism. After all, books are meant to be read by the masses—and dependence on the market should only be secondary.

The democratization of reading gave rise to some great intellectuals who resorted to self-education, such as Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and our own Andres Bonifacio. Our hero came from a poor family, yet he managed to educate himself by devoting his limited resources to buying books. Like these self-taught leaders, we seek knowledge despite the economic limitations, aiming to weave a meaningful education out of every book we read.

This great potential of the printed word, however, can only be reaped when markets of mass-produced texts become truly integrated in the actual state of communities, especially where a great deal of inexpensive reading matter is needed to fill the desires of even the poorest audiences.

Secondhand bookstores serve that role in my life. They will always fill my literary hunger—and in return, I will always revel in the smell of old books, and in their capacity to make me believe that the power of the printed word transcends time. I will reaffirm my view over and over that reading need not be an expensive preoccupation. I will still take delight in every literary wonder I stumble upon in even the humblest locations. And I will always be someone who would give books—from the finest to the obscure—a home that they deserve.

Mariejo Mariss S. Ramos, 21, works at the Philippine Daily Inquirer. She says she’s “a proud book sniffer—always putting her nose close to the pages to catch a whiff, literally and figuratively.”

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TAGS: “Notting Hill”, books, bookstores, Emily Dickinson, George Orwell, Lifestyle, news, Reading
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