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A gift from my father

/ 12:09 AM October 05, 2016

PEOPLE often ask why I became a historian, or when I first knew I wanted to be a historian. Others ask whether I loved history in school, or what made me a historian. These are simple questions that require long answers. But if I have to pinpoint the culprits, these would have to be: books, curiosity and love for reading.

Rainy days have kept me indoors, tidying up in a vain attempt to reclaim space on my work and dining tables, which are filled with so much clutter such that they cannot be used for the purpose they were made. Someone suggested that I try out the “KonMarie Method” detailed in the book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo, a professional declutterer who can boast of a long waiting list of clients in Japan. Her method is simple: Physically hold each object in your hands 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. This may work well with old clothes, shoes and knick-knacks, but books are a difficult lot. They multiply and take over space in my home.

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When I moved from my parent’s 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, and that didn’t give me much shelf space. 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 need for work and books I might read before I die. Since then my library has been “divided” into four places: Holy Angel University in Angeles, Pampanga, with over 6,000 volumes; Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies with about 1,000 of the rare and out-of-print volumes; two shelves of reference books in my cubicle in the Ateneo; and the remainder, mostly Filipiniana, at home.

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Sorting books comes easier these days because a lot of the rare volumes are now available online and can be downloaded for free. I do not need to own an original or first edition work if I can use a photocopy for work or reading. Over the years my digital library has grown, such that I also need a filing system to access them faster. I still cannot but marvel that I have a whole library on an external drive. The only issue with this being the fear that a change in operating system might make all these pdf and Word files unreadable.

Much as I like digital books, because I am allergic to book dust, I admit that I often pine for the pleasure of handling a physical book. Oh, the smell of printers’ ink and the tactile pleasures of type on 17th-century paper. I have tried the KonMarie method on books and realized it is quite difficult. From last week’s culling of books, documents and notes, I discovered that decluttering is also a highway to nostalgia 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. No heavyweights like Tolstoy or Hugo on his shelves though, mostly pulp paperbacks with racy women on the covers and author’s names in bold on the spines. I recall Earle 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 would look up engineering titles required for his teaching in UP 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 golden star or a book on Mao’s poetry; or books by authors like Lenin and Marx, which were not on the shelves of National Bookstore, Bookmark, Peco (Philippine Education Co.) or Erewhon (that’s “Nowhere” spelled backwards).

The home library of my childhood is nothing compared to the one I have built over the years. Compared to my present reference library, which 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 where photographs of diseased genitalia gave me an introduction to both porn and anatomy, as well as imbued in me the dread of venereal disease. I figure part of my sex life was warped by those medical books.

My father who encouraged me to read, a gift he did not seem to pass on to my sisters and a gift, I now realize, he also handed down to his favorite grandson. At 91 my father is well-preserved and lucid, thanks to his tablet that is loaded with books by Grisham and Clancy. Bookmarked are: the New York Times, the Inquirer, Fortune and Facebook. There are two photographs of my father and his grandson, which I cherish: One has them seated on opposite ends of a sofa, both reading books; the other, taken a few years after, has them reading from tablets. Are we seeing the end of the physical book? Not really, because people are reading much more today than they were a decade ago, but what they read now would be a subject for another column.

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