Growing up with a clutter of books
Tidying up is a good way to start a new year. It’s the right time to sort out clothing, for example, disposing of what is worn-out or what doesn’t fit anymore in terms of size or fashion. Getting rid of clutter comes easy when it comes to clothes and many other things accumulated during the past year, but what I cannot seem to control are books. Someone suggested I try the “KonMarie Method” detailed in the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo, who is a professional declutterer with a long waiting list in Japan. Her method is simple: Physically examine each object and ask yourself, “Does this spark joy?” Things that spark joy you keep; those that don’t are first thanked for being part of your life then thrown out or given away.
When I moved from my parents’ house into a condo over a decade ago, my father warned me that I could not bring all my books, and if I did I could not keep them all in one room because the concentrated weight of books in one part of the condo might be too heavy for the structure to carry. He suggested shelves aligned by the side of the load-bearing walls, which didn’t give me much room. So I ended up in a rented house for two years before decluttering and moving into the condo.
Sorting was easy at first. I kept books I needed for work and books I might read before I die. Since then my library has been divided in four places: Holy Angel University, which houses almost 10,000 volumes; the Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies, which has about 1,000 of the rare and out-of-print volumes; my cubicle at Ateneo de Manila University, which has two shelves of reference books; and my home, which holds the remainder.
Sorting books is easier now because a lot of the rare volumes are now available online and can be downloaded for free. I still cannot get over the fact that most of my reference material, a virtual library, fits in a hand-held external drive. My only issues now are how to sort and find files when I need them, and the fear that a change in operating system might make all these unreadable. Of course, I miss the pleasure of handling a physical book, but one can’t have everything. I don’t need to own a rare first edition if I have a digital copy.
I may try the KonMarie method on my books soon and see where it will take me, but from my last culling of books, documents and notes, I realize that decluttering is also a highway to nostalgia—and that takes up a lot of time. I felt a great sense of achievement just reclaiming space on my worktable, but it took a day because the process brought me back to the origin of my love for books.
I grew up in a house with books because my father read for leisure. There were no heavyweights like Tolstoy or Hugo on his shelves, though, mostly pulp paperbacks with racy women on the covers and the authors’ names in bold on the spines (I recall Erle Stanley Gardner and Mickey Spillane). I have fond childhood memories of trips to the bookstore with my father, whose rule of thumb was that he would buy me any book I wanted without question, unlike toys that could be refused. He lured me to the dentist in downtown Manila simply because it meant a trip to Popular Bookstore on Doroteo Jose, where he looked up engineering titles required for his teaching at the University of the Philippines and Mapua.
I don’t remember any of the childhood titles I got from Popular Bookstore, but I do recall, as a martial law baby, that it was a place to buy “forbidden” books like Mao’s Little Red Book with the gold star or a book on his poetry, or authors like Lenin and Marx that were not found on the shelves of National Bookstore, Bookmark, Peco (Philippine Education Co.), or Erehwon (that’s Nowhere spelled backward).
I learned from my father’s own experience to judge a book by its cover—literally, that is, because I remember how we would come home from a bookstore, sit on the sofa and open our loot. Ten pages into his freshly acquired book, the scent of its paper still in the air, he would swear and head off into the library; then he would come back holding a copy of the same detective novel, with a different cover!
The home library of my childhood was nothing compared to the one I have built for myself over the years. Compared to my present reference library that occupies the biggest room in my condo, my father’s library was the smallest room in the house, with dark wood paneling and four built-in shelves filled with pocketbooks and my aunt’s medical textbooks whose photographs of diseased genitalia provided me with both an introduction to porn and anatomy as well as the dread of venereal disease. I figure that part of my sex life was warped by those medical books.
I can never be grateful enough for a father who encouraged me to read, a gift he did not seem to pass on to my sisters, a gift that I realize he handed down to his favorite grandson. At 90, my father is well preserved and lucid, thanks to his tablet loaded with pirated books by Grisham and Clancy, a tablet with bookmarks on the New York Times, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Fortune and Facebook. There are two delightful photographs of my father and his grandson that I cherish: One has them seated on opposite ends of a sofa, both reading from books; the other has them reading from tablets.
Seeing that in my lifetime underscores the generation gap between my nephew and me, my students and me.
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