IT WAS in a honkytonky shade of pink. When, at the end of a school year, it was stamped all over with “Returned” in virulent screaming purple, I was over the moon. When one became two or even three cards consumed in high school—a time I flunked with genius regularity daily quizzes but knew almost every title in the Literature and History sections, not to mention the Life and National Geographic files—I figured I could die young and be happy for as long as the Great Library in the Sky would renew my card.
In years of reading, teaching and writing, I’ve stayed in many libraries far longer than the mortal duration of a dozen celebrated marriages summed up and then multiplied by infinity.
I’ve dozed in a couple of libraries, got lost among what has been described as the most extensive collection in Southeast Asia. As a student, I endured the effluvium from a nearby urinal when I had to sit daily in the only remaining vacant section in a library the size of one classroom and a half. As a teacher, I’m horrified by students who crow that they have never stepped inside the library, not even to photocopy someone’s notes or get end-of-term clearance.
I cannot believe anyone can miss the point, planted like book-crammed shelves before them: libraries are among this life’s graces.
And of all the ones I’ve known, I am sentimental about the first to put a library card in my hand. One Friday afternoon, in second grade at St. Theresa’s College (STC) Cebu, my class was brought to explore the library. I found then my favorite subject.
Today, interactive learning is the pedagogical fashion. During those endless afternoons at the library, I discovered nothing can be more stimulating than books. From grades two to three, I was drawn to illustrations. I came to embrace paragraphs and chapters later as one comes to accept the kid brother trailing after one’s best friend, only to find that the twerp is even cooler than the friend.
Starting at the age of eight, I squirreled away finds behind the stolid encyclopedia tomes, hoping no one would borrow these before I could. When, a week later, I checked and found my stash had been reshelved, I was fired up to hunt again for a “good read.”
The search for a book better than the one just finished is the culprit behind lifelong squinting and neck ache, acquired from systematically going up and down the shelves, with one’s head angled awkwardly. The “good read” is an elusive, maddening beloved.
The STC main library of my time was more than up to this sweet torture. When I ran through all the available Carolyn Keene titles, from Nancy Drew to Dana Girls, I dawdled around Louisa May Alcott before all that cloying virtue made me jittery. Then, in lieu of mitosis and frog dissection, I swung around with Tarzan of the Apes and other interplanetary explorers created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Even though I hardly saw in campus any boy of my age, I signed out with my library card and brought home John Carter of Mars, Carson Napier of Venus and David Innes of Pellucidar. Much later, I discovered J. R. R. Tolkien, D. H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov.
Coming upon Lolita, 12, and her Humbert Humbert, 37, made me question the way I saw the nuns running my school. After I read the opening lines of Nabokov (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul."), I decided then the nuns were not strict and uptight. Or they had not read everything in the library.
Even now, when I sign out references using my library card, I get the same rush. The card is now in a sedate shade of ecru. But I haven’t given up hope. One day, while researching on civic journalism, I might run smack again into Lord Greystoke, swinging from tree to tree in his birthday suit, or poor, lost, besotted Humbert Humbert, who taught me: each to his own delirium.
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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Oct. 28, 2007 issue