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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Romance of Books

The romance of books
Looking Back column item by Ambeth Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:44:00 02/01/2008

MANILA, Philippines -- Whenever I assign my students to do some research in the library, they roll their eyes, murmur audibly, and, I’m sure, curse me under their breath. Asking many of them to handle a book in the digital age is a clear indicator of my age: Jurassic!

For many years now, I have been described as a “young historian,” two words that do not quite go together in the common mind because historians are usually old, senile, or six feet under. My relative “youth” prompted dismissive remarks from some dinosaurs in academia who are fortunately nearing extinction.

Having to face two large classes of frisky sophomores twice a week makes me feel my true age. Fortunately, patches of gray hair now give me an air of respectability. To keep up with my students and try to understand their world, I spend long hours surfing the Net these days, looking up sources they can access on their computers.

I’m happy that the first book printed in the Philippines, “Doctrina Cristiana” (1593), can be viewed on the Net from the US Library of Congress. You can actually flip the pages as if you had the physical book in front of you. Internet research can save a scholar in Manila the expense and trouble of traveling to Washington, D.C. to see the “Doctrina,” but the sheer joy of physically handling this rare book on rice paper, the only copy in the universe, is priceless.

Surely young people today value other things, but there is a romance with the printed word that only comes with books. You can download and print a hard copy of a digital or scanned book, but it can never replace the sensual joy of fondling the ribbed leather binding with the raised gold stamping on the spine, sensing a scent of printers ink and age that charges the air when you open an old book. Then there is the sight of gold edges and beautiful type. You do not have to be a Filipino historian to get a thrill leafing through the handwritten manuscripts of “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.” Even the offset reprints of these manuscripts provide delight for people who encounter them for the first time. I just hope that assigning students to read real books will spark a lifelong affair with reading and the desire for learning.

My students also complain when I send them to museums and Intramuros. They don’t know their way in Manila, as they would their favorite malls. They complain about museums being far, of having visited these before and remembering only that they were bored witless. I encourage them to explore the past with their friends, so that they can at least be bored together, and quite often, what began as a chore turns out to be a wonderful experience.

Some people have found the love of their lives while contemplating a Ming bowl with frolicking Fu dogs in the National Museum. They hold hands while contemplating Jose Rizal’s vertebra in Fort Santiago or wondering why San Pedro Martir in the cloisters of San Agustin has a bloodied bolo slicing into his head. I have not come across any student, no matter how bored and jaded, who was not awed by Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo’s “Assassination of Governor Bustamante.” We have enough blood and gore in these two paintings to make any visit to the recently opened National Gallery worth the trouble and the price of admission.

I visited the “Spoliarium” last week and was rather distressed that I was the only person in the hall, aside from the guard. If our past is so important, our culture and history essential, why aren’t people breaking down doors to enter our museums and libraries? Why do young people have to be herded or forced to visit museums when these are the first things they visit when they are abroad?

People often ask me to lecture on “how to make history interesting.” I always insist that history is interesting and if you think otherwise, the problem was not the subject matter, it was probably your teacher or your textbook.

After spending the better part of the Christmas holidays sorting books, I now look at my collection pleased by a modest shelf of rare or out-of-print titles (mostly Filipiniana printed before 1950) as well as autographed or presentation copies of books.

Someday these books will be more valuable than they are at present. I placed all the 19th-century books together, all those in pigskin or leather bindings side by side, and one particular volume stood out: “A Visit to the Philippine Islands.” It has an impressed, embossed leather cover ornamented with an image of a Filipina carrying fruits. First published in 1859, this book by Sir John Bowring, former governor of Hong Kong and Her Britannic Majesty’s plenipotentiary to China, has a detailed and illustrated account of a visit not just to Manila but also to the provinces. It even has a section on proverbs in old Tagalog and comes with a sheet of music on the back that gives the music and words of “Comintang de la Conquista.” I browsed and marveled at the detail in his observations and realized that people then were travelers, not tourists.

Old books and artifacts are difficult to maintain. In the past decade, I have been content to use photocopies of books and manuscripts for work. But every now and then, the romance of a real book returns and makes research a joy rather than a chore.

Copyright 2008 Philippine Daily Inquirer. All rights reserved.

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